Globally Huge, Incredibly Engaged: Insights from the Gaming and eSports Market
In our 2023 Trend Report, we highlighted the eSports market as an incredibly relevant area to watch because of its adoption and use of the metaverse, VR and virtual experiences. These are all trends that stand to have a significant impact on the MICE industry, and with the audience and value of the eSports sector expected to increase dramatically in the next few years, there’s a lot that we stand to learn from the latest developments and marketing approaches used here.
As our report stated, the eSports audience is not only “globally huge, but also incredibly engaged”. As the MICE industry faces the challenge of continuing to connect an increasingly widespread audience through innovative and exciting ways, it will benefit massively from taking a look at how the eSports industry has managed to appeal to a customer base that is predominantly online, but is also incredibly loyal and engaged with content and events across a range of formats.
In this article, we take a brief look at the history of eSports and how the market has developed, before diving into some of the key trends and insights from the industry that are relevant to MICE professionals right now.
In this article:
A History of the eSports Industry
The history of eSports began in the 1970s, with a Space Invaders tournament organised by Atari being one of the first major competitive events that took place. Official teams of gamers began forming in the 1980s, and in 1988 Netrek, the first multiplayer game that could be played over the internet was released, beginning to facilitate competition between players around the world.
In the 1990s, brands such as Nintendo and Blockbuster Video began hosting and sponsoring world gaming championships, but it was the development of the PC as an accessible device for all households that made the most impact in this decade. Global connection grew, but local competition was also much easier when more people had access to their own PCs, leading to the formation of a range of teams and communities which developed into the first eSports leagues.
As technology allowed us all to grow more and be more connected across countries and time zones, the eSports industry boomed, with games growing more complex and a range of different tournaments and competitions organised. Professional gaming became a viable career option for the most dedicated fans, with many competitions gaining big enough sponsors to offer impressive rewards.
The streaming platform Twitch was another significant development that has a particular relevance to the events industry as well, as it allowed players to stream games and matches online to a virtual audience. Not only did this make the eSports sector more accessible to a wider range of players, but it also provided opportunities for certain players and commentators to gain followers and become known as key figures in the industry.
Today, online and in-person eSports tournaments are held all over the world on a massive scale, with popular matches taking over stadiums and the first-ever Olympic Esports Week taking place in June 2023. These competitions have a place in the MICE industry as a brilliant example of how digital communities can find relevance and value in in-person events, but also stand alone as a great example of how a global community of fans has contributed to the formation of a market that is predicted to be worth USD 6.75 billion by 2030.
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Key Insights from the Gaming and eSports Market
Like many sectors, the eSports industry has undergone significant changes in the past few years in particular. Here are some of the main trends and topics that are relevant to the market at the moment, along with our insight into how this can help professionals in the MICE industry.
The Importance of Diversity
All audiences include demographics that tend to dominate the community, and whilst targeting these groups does tend to have the biggest impact, it is also important to ensure that your brand is inclusive and appeals to different customer personas. Not only does this give you the most stable customer base in the long run, but it also ensures your reputation isn’t tarnished by concerns over bias or a lack of inclusivity.
An example of this in the eSports market is the gender divide of the audience, which was estimated at around 63% male in Europe in 2022. Despite there almost being an even divide between male and female gamers and eSports fans, it’s still generally considered to be a male-dominated industry, especially at a professional level, which has led to increased efforts to improve female representation and cater more towards this audience. Plenty of eSports events are not only making an effort to feature more female players and commentators, but are also planning events specifically to women and ensuring that they feel recognised by marketing material.
What the MICE industry can learn from this is that there’s a lot of potential in the audience outside of your main customer demographic. Tailoring events to these groups and ensuring that they feel included and represented is very important and a great source of additional growth and brand awareness.
On the topic of demographics, there’s a huge focus across most industries at the moment on appealing to younger generations and tapping into the best ways to engage Gen-Z in particular. This group certainly makes up a large portion of the eSports audience and is very important for the future, but the industry still has a following of fans between 25 - 35 who are still dedicated to retro games and the communities that they helped form. As we highlighted in our report, the average age of a gamer is 34, which is firmly in the Millennial demographic.
These fans are not forgotten when it comes to the events and offerings of the eSports market, which also highlights the importance of continuing to engage with and appeal to your brand's long-standing followers, or just customers outside of the current ‘focus’ generation. Gen-Z is a great source of growth and insight into new trends in particular, but older demographics can be incredibly loyal to brands they support, and should not be forgotten about in your events.
Perhaps the most successful marketing approach in the eSports industry is influencer marketing. This not only teaches us about the best ways to utilise this approach, but also highlights the power that micro-influencers can have in promoting a brand.
The gaming industry is filled with names and figures that are incredibly recognisable to fans and followers of events and competitions, which has created a goldmine of influencers for brands in eSports to make the most of. Whether these are famous players being invited to competitions, popular streamers hosting or commentating on tournaments, or niche bloggers and creators promoting certain events, games and merchandise, eSports businesses see a lot of success when they utilise influencer marketing to promote their offerings.
What’s interesting about this approach is that, outside of the eSports sector, famous players and popular influencers aren’t very well known. Areas like travel, fashion and beauty often dominate popular culture and provide much more widespread recognition to influencers used by brands, but in gaming the figures that work with brands often have a small but very dedicated following.
Streaming platforms like Twitch have played a major role in this, allowing anyone to stream games for an audience and build a following that can get them noticed by brand and associated with particular events or franchises. Whilst Twitch is now thought to be declining as a platform due to a change in its policies, these influencers are taking their audiences with them to other platforms and continuing to attract successful brand partnerships, sponsorships and opportunities to promote or work within the eSports market.
So what can this teach us about successful approaches in the MICE industry?
Firstly, it highlights the impact that smaller influencers can have on a brand’s reputation because of the loyalty of their following. Whilst any partnership content an influencer creates with your event brand may not have a huge reach, they are likely to have a much closer relationship with their following which will mean their promotion of your brand has more of an impact. Bigger eSports businesses still tend to favour gamers with a larger following, but within communities and fanbases, there are plenty of examples of micro-influencers that have been invited to and involved in smaller tournaments and events.
Influencers with eSports viewership also demonstrate the value of finding and working with figures that have a particular reputation in a relevant area, even if they’re not known at all outside of this. Whilst gaming is becoming more mainstream, a lot of the players and figures that are household names in gaming wouldn’t be recognised outside of these circles. But their influence on fans is incredibly impactful, and MICE professionals should learn from this approach and take the time to identify influencers that are relevant to their brand and who could help spread awareness, even if they’re not traditionally ‘well-known’.
Importance of Community
Another key insight we can take from the eSports market, which touches on the topics we have just talked about, is the importance and impact of community. Console, PC and VR games all have individual followings, and within these types of games, you have a huge range of different genres and styles that have evolved over the years and have their roots in different groups and interests.
Influencers are a classic example of how brands can take communities and groups of followers and find ways to promote their product or event to them with trusted endorsement. But communities within eSports are particularly close-knit and dedicated to the games they enjoy and the content and lore that surrounds this, which has contributed to the success of certain approaches and events in this industry.
Many games have their own colloquial language connected to them which is instantly recognised by fans and can be utilised by brands to indicate an understanding of an audience's interest and an enthusiasm for the games they enjoy. On a larger scale, there are numerous examples of franchises that have stemmed from games like The Witcher, League of Legends and Pokemon and grown into incredibly successful brands thanks to the support and dedication of their community of fans.
Community has kept older games alive in the industry that have provided eSports companies with continued profits and brand awareness, with a recent example being the re-release of World of Warcraft Classic and popular expansions, which allowed previous fans of the popular 00s game to rediscover it in an improved format. But even if older games aren’t played as often as they once were, their stories, characters and lore are still loved and discussed by fans at meet-ups and events that keep these brands alive.
The learning we can take from this trend is that brands in the MICE industry will benefit a lot from building a community of attendees, rewarding their loyalty and continuing to cater to this group, as well as targeting new audiences. Leveraging communities, their colloquialisms and their interests also give you an effective way of tapping directly into an audience to better understand and engage with them, as well as increasing their loyalty.
Return to Virtual
The final trend in the eSports industry at the moment which is particularly relevant to MICE businesses is the return to virtual and digital formats for events and advertising. Whilst in-person conventions and tournaments remain popular in some areas, activity is generally trending towards online events for several reasons.
The first is that the impact of the pandemic meant that plenty of big eSports brands lost money and simply can’t afford to host or attend in-person events at this point, choosing to use their budget for more cost-effective marketing approaches. The repeated cancellation of E3, which was the world’s biggest gaming expo, is one of the biggest examples of this in the games industry.
When brands host their own tournaments virtually, they also have a lot more control over their content and can personalise it specifically for their audience. They still need a large following and an effective marketing strategy to use this approach successfully, but by streaming tournaments, interviews and other relevant content virtually, they can reach a wider audience with more targeted content.
It’s worth taking this trend with a pinch of salt however, as the shift to virtual is slowing down at the moment. Now when the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer limiting the in-person interaction we are all allowed, interest in sitting and watching hours of online games is declining. This highlights a challenge faced by both the MICE and eSports industry, which is continuing to provide online events that are engaging enough to keep attendees interested throughout and returning for more.
The eSports industry does a fantastic job of bridging the gap between online gaming and in-person interaction, and there are plenty of technical things that we can learn from the different approaches taken with hybrid events and the ways global communities are encouraged to interact because of a brand. Changing demand and capacity for virtual and in person events is a trend that will continue to develop and evolve, especially with the progression of virtual and immersive technology, and it’s likely that eSports will be one of the first places we see this development.
The eSports and events industry overlap in some ways, but competitive gaming and the market for this are advancing faster in other areas that MICE professionals should definitely look to learn from. It’s an industry where marketing approaches like influencer marketing and community building are incredibly impactful, and adopting these approaches could help event brands to guarantee long-term growth and success.
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