With live events back in full swing, esports companies are increasingly expanding their event programming beyond competitive gaming, both to reach a changing esports audience and educate brand partners about the value of gaming fandom as they begin to demand more clarity on the ROI of their esports investments.
These changes reflect the changing demographics of the esports community. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, esports was still viewed as the territory of basement-dwelling nerds, not suit-wearing businessmen. Over the past few years, gaming and esports underwent a cultural transformation, with brands and gamers alike realizing its growing role as a pillar of popular culture. These days, people don’t attend esports events just to feel the thrill of competition — they go to network, too.
“It’s less about securing the exact same attendees who have attended in the past as much as it is about refreshing the event experience to best serve the attendees that not only arrived this year, but that can come in the future, based on what that refreshed experience is,” said Rick “TheHadou” Thiher, the general manager of Evolution Championship Series, the long-running fighting game tournament held in Las Vegas every summer.
This weekend, for example, gamers from around the Great Lakes region will be traveling to Detroit for Immortals Invasion, a live, in-person gaming event. The event, hosted by the esports organization Immortals, will offer opportunities to attend resume reviews and panels geared toward the esports industry, in addition to casual gaming experiences and food from local restaurants. Although the event is hosted by an esports org, it isn’t a competitive tournament — and for the moment, Immortals isn’t even approaching it as a potential revenue stream.
“It’s really about showing up and fulfilling our company promise,” said Immortals CEO Jordan Sherman. “We made an announcement six months ago that we are going to level up gaming in the Great Lakes, so we look at these events as a fulfillment of that promise, and complementary to our other business units. We don’t see this as rapid expansion, or a whole new strategy.”
As the esports industry emerges from COVID-19, live events such as the Minnesota ROKKR’s Call of Duty League Major II in April have been a source of confidence for esports organizations looking to show off their continued growth to brand partners. Every day of the CDL event sold out, some weeks in advance, and the event itself was chock-full of opportunities for the team’s brand partners to connect with attendees, including giveaways and gaming stations.
“One of the really important things for us, in addition to the partners that we had activating at the event, was hosting representatives from brands that we’re looking to work with in the future,” said Brett Diamond, COO of the ROKKR and its parent company, Version1. “We had over 100 VIP guests across various brands, agencies, sports media, entertainment. There’s obviously still a lot of education on the esports space that’s happening almost on a daily basis for organizations like us. So putting on a big event like this, it’s really an opportunity to showcase what it can be and what it is.”
Indeed, although esports events still center around competitive gaming, they are increasingly becoming professional events as well — rare opportunities for those who work in a largely remote industry to come together and hobnob about their work. This extends beyond the Immortals’ resume reviews or the professional education side of CDL events.
The organizers of this year’s iteration of Evolution Championship Series are going to great lengths to differentiate between the tournament itself and the massive gaming and esports industry trade show that runs alongside it. The event’s organizers believe that mixing professional and competitive experiences creates an environment that is beneficial for both sides of the coin.
“I don’t think that there is necessarily an opportunity at any convention-scale show to be only the best convention, or only the best trade show, or only the best tournament, or to have this experience be exactly what is necessary for the best competitive environment known to man,” Thiher said. “But I also think that’s okay. Playing football in Green Bay at Lambeau Field when it is snowing is not the most optimal way to play football, but it is one of the most beloved football experiences within the NFL.”
Ticket sales are a major revenue driver in traditional sports, but their success is yet to be proven in the esports industry, in which the audience is largely accustomed to gaming and spectating from the comfort of their own homes. For now, live esports events are more useful for esports orgs to solidify the loyalty of their audiences — particularly those of localized organizations such as Immortals and the Minnesota ROKKR — and to connect those audiences with their brand partners.
“There’s only so much gameplay that fans can consistently watch over a period, and there’s going to be breaks in the action. They’re looking for stuff to make this a more immersive experience for them,” said Paul Mascali, head of esports and gaming at PepsiCo. “And honestly, brands play a significant role in that. There are a ton more brand activations and booths, and kind of this expo-style feel to esports events.”
Despite this change in strategy, many esports organizations still plan to turn their events into more seamlessly revenue-generating products down the line. As the industry continues to search for a pathway to true profitability and sustainability, all options remain on the table.
“We could sell tickets, and we could try to make it a huge profit center, but that’s not the stage that we’re at right now,” Sherman said. “That’s the long-term goal.”