The Marketing Science of Esports: Making Sense of the Future of Competitive Entertainment

by Jonathan Stringfield, Activision Blizzard Media on Apr 22, 2021

The Call of Duty League launched its second season in February and The Overwatch League launched its fourth season last weekend. An exciting format for competitive entertainment, the ecosystem of teams, partners, and fans supporting the leagues has become increasingly diverse and sophisticated.

This means that the necessity to understand the wants and needs of our fans and demonstrate the unique power that esports and city-based fandom can provide to sponsorship partners, has never been higher. Fan attention and sponsorship budgets share a commonality insofar that they are, more or less, zero sum games. In esports one requires keen insights, data and meaningful metrics, to help contextualize fan views or elicit innovative sponsorships from our brand partners to help support the leagues.

Put more simply - to be a leader in the world of esports you must be a leader in consumer understanding and performance metrics to both create compelling experiences for viewers and demonstrable results for sponsors. In both cases, understanding the unique needs and mindset that esports evokes is critical.

To gain this level of understanding necessitates a clear and direct way to listen. To do so, we recently launched “Call of Duty League Recon Corp” and forthcoming “Overwatch League Recon Division” as viewership communities created by Activision Blizzard to receive feedback from our fans on our broadcasts, sponsors, or anything relevant to optimizing and understanding the reaction of our fans to various elements of our leagues. The net result is a fan-first way to receive timely feedback from our most valuable (and often elusive) fans.

Through activities staged within these communities and similar research in the past, clear themes have emerged in terms of how esports viewership varies from other types of viewership. Specifically, fans are not tuning in simply for the competitive spectacle, often they are looking to increase their skills within the core game by watching the best of the best go head-to-head. This in turn signals a very different way in which fan attention is focused on an esports broadcast compared to traditional sports. To better understand this phenomenon, we recently completed a comprehensive biometric and neurological viewership lab experiment (via remote data collection, given the realities of a global pandemic) to understand how our viewers reacted to our esports streams and a standardized set of sponsorship elements in a variety of viewership contexts. Specifically, we compared a series of sponsorship experiences across clips of traditional sports, other non-Activision Blizzard esports, more generalized entertainment programming, and clips from The Overwatch League and Call of Duty League. The findings were quite robust and varied, though in general the takeaway is that the uniquely high level of attention our fans have on these broadcasts translates to heightened attention amongst viewers for sponsors above and beyond traditional sports and other esports in several key aspects.

Using sponsorship placements as the constant across these experiences allowed for an objective part of the viewing experience to be standardized across a variety of very different viewing experiences in a natural way. This allowed for a higher degree of “external validity” (i.e. how seriously we can take these findings outside of a lab environment) to our understanding of the mindset of esports fans while also proving useful for sponsorship partners. 

The implications are clear - esports captivates a unique and growing audience in a distinctive way, and the work to understand these experiences has only just begun. Producers of esports content must aspire to understand the needs and wants of their viewers in the clearest manner possible to produce content that is great for the viewership experience and worthwhile for sponsors. In the multitude of ways that esports is unique, one of its most compelling attributes is that it is inherently digital-first. This has a number of ramifications for how we measure sentiment and impact around this content. It also means that these levels of deeper understanding are not optional, but table stakes for the future of the entire esports ecosystem.

When it comes to understanding the world of esports from a marketing science point of view, if the approach isn’t fan-first and empirically led, it’s already lost - or in the parlance of esports, it’s “GG” (Good Game).