Traditional sports and eSports: how far should the parallels be taken?

It’s inevitable that we would compare eSports to the traditional sports landscape. At the most basic level, both have ‘sport’ in their name. And of course, both have evolved in fairly similar ways; an organic, grass roots growth, driven by the passion of participants and subsequent drawing in of larger and larger audiences, with more big name brands and sponsors circling the industry.

But is it helpful for brands to draw on the comparisons given that these are two very different spaces which have been traditionally embraced by very different audiences?

Where the similarities lie…

It’s easy to forget that traditional sports haven’t always received the limelight in the mainstream media that they enjoy today. The huge sponsorship deals, continual media attention of individual athletes and brand logos in every camera shot certainly weren’t there on day one.

eSports may lead us to reminisce of these days, but increasingly this market is in a transitional state – moving from a niche, lesser-known pastime to achieving  a vast increase in  viewership. With growing audiences comes interest from brands, and the need to solidify a commercial strategy and sponsorship model. This happened in sport; as technology evolved, more and more people were able to access and enjoy the games, with the lines blurring between sport and entertainment as access to TV’s and TV packages increased globally.

One tangible example where similarities between sport and eSport lie is the clothing that the professional players wear. Like in traditional sports, eSport teams are identifiable by their t-shirts and apparel. These shirts have space for sponsor logos and promotional messaging, similar to a football shirt. Apparel is also sold by eSports teams so fans are also starting to wear the tops that their favourite player does, like in sport. Fnatic for example recently set up their own pop up shop in Shoreditch to start selling in physical premises to their fans.

Universities have also started introducing varsity eSports teams, as well as clubs for more casual players.Some, such as The University of Califormia, even offering scholarships for those who excel in eSports

eSport tournaments, conventions and gaming events are growing in popularity, bringing in new audiences at the same time as creating opportunities for brands to own a special occasion. The tournament finals attract 10’s of thousands of attendees to the stadiums and millions more watching online via live streaming.

Is it that straightforward?

No - these comparisons aren’t always applicable. Although it is undeniable that eSports is an attractable industry to get involved with, given its rise in popularity in recent  years, ease of access and high numbers of viewers, it isn’t completely clear cut. One of the drawbacks to eSports is its fragmented landscape. There is no specific stand out ‘league’ as such, like there is in sports such as football, basketball, baseball to name a few. Each game title has its own unique universe of players and fans with less overlap than you might expect. Players or athletes of seemingly similar games such as DOTA and Counterstrike could be as different as Lionel Messi and Tom Brady  they are on completely different fields. You don’t often see a player of one game play anything else.

In addition, the commentators, casters and hosts of one game very rarely cross over to another due to an excessive knowledge in their particular game. This fragmentation makes the gaming industry seem confusing and could be daunting to newcomers. Brands need to be fully aware of this when entering into sponsorship deals with eSports. The fact that the games are so different means the viewers of one game may not enjoy or watch another. Therefore data and research are essential to make informed decisions before rushing into this seemingly attractive industry.

Core eSports fans are 175% more likely than the adult population to agree that advertising within video or computer gameplay enhances the realism of the game but 48% of fans feel bombarded by advertising. Therefore, brands need to consider that advertising and sponsorship should be additive to the fan experience. Unlike traditional sports, paying to have a logo in shot somewhere may not necessarily resonate.

One size doesn’t fit all

Sports and eSports have both gone through their journey of infancy to high growth, both benefitting from advancements in technology and increasing accessibility.  Branding principles from traditional sports can be emulated to a certain degree in eSports, especially in the form of team ‘kits’ and merchandise.

Nevertheless, it’s crucial for sponsors to recognise that one size does not fit all. eSports is a vast and complex industry and evolving at a rapid pace as technologies advance and new audiences become engaged. Too often ‘eSports fans’ are categorised as one whole group and yet fans of one game may not be fans of another, which applies to many players, hosts and casters too.

Sponsors can take a lot of their learning from sport, but those who will succeed in eSports will undertake the necessary research and gain the right insights to inform their decisions before damaging their chances in this potentially lucrative, growing market.

The content of this article is taken from a presentation which Gareth Moore, Director Business Development, Sports Intelligence, Kantar Media gave at The Future Games Summit, 2016For further information, please contact

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