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The global esports market will grow to $463 million this year, according to Newzoo’s latest Global Esports Market Report. By 2019 the report says revenues will grow to a whopping $1.1 billion – not bad for a bunch of “geeks” sitting around playing computer games together, right?

As a 22 year old with increasingly disposable income, I fall into the valuable sport-loving millennial target group for the advertising industry. I’m someone who enjoyed the recent UFC 196 and will probably watch a few Euro 2016 games this summer, yet many more hours of my week are regularly consumed by watching esports.

As esports continues to grow, it will undoubtedly elicit the interest of brands longing to engage with our harder-to-reach demographic. We’ve already seen earlier this year industry heavyweights Activision Blizzard acquiring Major League Gaming, promising visions of the “ESPN of gaming” for the esports channel. I’m also expecting more noise from Twitch before the end of the year as it looks to market itself as a media owner for millennials, following its acquisition by Amazon.

It’s a growing trend in my generation, and it’s not hard to see why. How can the likes of Chelsea or Arsenal, soccer teams that play once or twice in a week, compete with their online incarnations in the latest FIFA game that are being watched or played whenever the user demands?

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Aside from my 9-to-5 at sports and entertainment agency HSE Cake, where I advise gaming brands like Electronic Arts, I’m also one half of TWiiNSANE – a YouTube channel with 50,000 subscribers. I speak from experience when it comes to brands trying to form meaningful partnerships within gaming and esports — we are young, early adopters with a passion for gaming, and we’re not your average sports fans – to continue the soccer analogy, we don’t fit into the traditional “soccer fan” bucket marketers are used to putting their money into.

Beyond badging

Just like the big sports teams, professional esports teams wear the logos of their sponsors across their jerseys or hats — giving the likes of Monster and Red Bull exposure to millions of fans in the space of an event weekend. Even in-game naming rights have been offered to advertiser BenQ, whose U.K.-sponsored team TCM Gaming included the brand in their online avatars. These companies offer product supply drops for players during matches along with additional funding and merchandise in return for a spike in brand awareness driven by the eSports team’s popularity with gaming fans.

But smart brands will go a step further by looking at the bigger picture. You can badge a team or push products, but a brand is yet to sponsor an esports league. Consider Barclays’ sponsorship of the Premier League, which has helped rehab the bank’s reputation since the financial crisis — in the not-too-distant future, I can see a similar household name investing in a major esports sponsorship deal. If Activision Blizzard is looking to grow the new-look MLG, similarly to the UFC, it would make sense to get advertisers involved.

If that sounds fanciful, consider the League of Legends 2015 World Championship, which saw 334 million unique viewers from across the globe over the four-week competition period – peaking at 14 million concurrent live viewers. To put that in perspective, the 2015 X-Factor final peaked at 9.7 million.

For brands considering esports partnerships, you need to come across as genuinely offering something new or valuable to the audience. Take a campaign by The Sun last year, for example – the newspaper worked with Gfinity, a leading esports tournament organizer, to support and develop the industry. The Sun doubled prize pool money, provided a platform for esports coverage, and opened new revenue streams for players. In return, they received event tickets, broadcast rights, branding, exclusive interviews, and more.

The aforementioned Red Bull is also building a high-tech training lab in the U.S. to help esports athletes improve their skills – these mutually beneficially initiatives are exactly the sort of thing esports fans and players are looking for.

Don’t hate the player

Esports by its very nature happens online, which offers another opportunity for brands in the shape of the players themselves. You can sponsor a traditional athlete, but how many of those have the wealth of visual content to share on social platforms to engage directly with fans on a daily basis?

Messi and Ronaldo might fill the sports pages, but popular esports players such as Nadeshot and Olofmeister have become celebrities in their own right. Wolfsburg, the German soccer team, has already made an interesting move by signing David Bytheway – one of the best FIFA players in the world – as its “official gamer.” He’ll wear the club’s striking green kit during tournaments, bringing it to the attention of the gaming world in the process.

I don’t imagine it will be long before a big brand makes a similar move. Red Bull has an F1 team and two football teams, while the Honda Heat and Coca-Cola Red Sparks are rugby union sides in Japan. A fully branded esports team might not be far off – The Red Bull Alliance has a nice ring to it.

Above all, brands need to strike a personal chord with fans and influencers alike. You only need to look at YouPorn and Play2Win to see that some will sign anything if there are enough zeroes on the end, but most of us strive for relevant partnerships that will resonate with our existing audience – the last thing we want is for our regular viewers to feel alienated or like we’ve stopped creating the content they originally got on board with. As a result, I’ll ignore an email from a brand that feels generic and with no research into the content I upload, and those that use my real name and treat me like an actual person always catch my eye.

The esports audience may still be relatively new, but it’s huge and is only getting bigger. As it continues to grow, so inevitably will the pool of brands that jump on the hype train. At the moment, basic sponsorship and brand awareness activity is the most frequent and present form of marketing, but the industry is crying out for a brand to really change the game.

Liam Thompson is a gaming influencer at sports and entertainment agency HSE Cake,n and he has 6.5 million YouTube views, runs popular YouTube gaming channel TWiiNSANE alongside his brother, Jake, and more recently ran an influencer campaign for EA, launching Star Wars: Battlefront and Unravel.

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