Traditional sports have their eye on esports. Leagues like the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, and NASCAR see esports as a path to generating younger viewership. We’ve seen traditional sports invest in esports teams, and now we are beginning to see professional teams/leagues and collegiate programs attempt to integrate esports elements into their own business models.
Integrations have ranged from fan experiences, to interactive contests, or simple ticket sales gimmicks designed to bring in a younger audience to aging sports. But just because a property or sport integrates esports doesn’t mean they are all doing it at the same level of success or with the same overall intention.
So, who’s doing it well and making it fit organically, and who is just looking to leverage esports to drive ticket sales? Let’s take a look.
NASCAR partnered with 704Games and Esports Arena Drive to bring NASCAR Heat Champions to Daytona International Speedway during the Daytona 500 race weekend.
All fans in attendance got a chance to win prizes playing NASCAR Heat 2. While this had an independent activation feel and more of a showcase for a new mobile arena than a NASCAR-run program, the interest in esports makes sense. NASCAR has an older fan base, averaging around 58 years old for television viewers.
The esports tournament extended multiple days enticing fans to attend practice days and not just race day. The best part of this setup was the integration of live streaming of the finals on Twitch complete with announcers. You can get a feel for the integration in this recap video.
The one thing that this activation has to continue to make sure it provides is that competitive esports feel. It’s important to appear as being part of the esports space instead of just another video game promotion.
This activation is off to a good start, but it also appears that for NASCAR this has the benefit of some additional ticket sales on non-race days while allowing them to tap into a younger audience that they are desperately trying to attract.
Two different NCAA basketball conferences – the Horizon League and the Mountain West Conference – jumped into the esports add-on world, tying their championships to events.
The Horizon League partnered with 313 Presents and Gamer Saloon to create the Motor City Madness Esports Championships. This integration broke into two different parts playing NBA2K. The first was an online qualification stage to determine 16 finalists to compete in the second part of the competitions which occurred in person on Day 1 of the Horizon League tournament.
The major issue with this integration was that it was not designed to integrate the actual fan bases or students from schools within the Horizon League itself. It featured over 200 NBA2K players from around the country and each of those registrants received a Day 1 ticket to the Horizon League tournament, helping boost attendance numbers.
The Mountain West Conference took a more natural entrance into esports. During its conference tournament, it showcased two of its partner schools esports teams. Boise State and UNLV played three different games — League of Legends, Rocket League, and Overwatch. The event was also streamed live on Twitch on the Mountain West Conference esports page.
If you compare the two events, the Mountain West esports event feels much more of an organic addition to its basketball tournament by focusing on its partner schools participating and naturally adding their respective esports teams.
The Horizon League event comes off as more of a kick-in event and a chance to brand yourself as entering esports without giving much thought on how to integrate your core audience (your schools) already attending the core event.
Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson hammered home this idea when he was quoted in an ESPN story saying, “Globally, esports is enjoying a boom in popularity – particularly among young people who are in the same age bracket as the students on our campuses. We are also seeing universities add esports programming, technology and business to their curriculum offerings.”
Tournaments like this one will go a long way to add validity to the many college programs being formed at universities, especially the ones still primarily being run by students.
The relationship between the NBA and NBA 2K League is one of the biggest questions in esports.
There are clear tie-ins with NBA teams providing the infrastructure for each esports team. However, there is one clear separation when it comes to the NBA and the NBA 2K League — but it is subtle to catch. Most assume when they see Bucks Gaming or Celtics Gaming that they are talking about the Boston Celtics or the Milwaukee Bucks. However, it appears that there will be a difference between those entities. Take a look at the full team list for the league.
You never see the city name brought up in any of the promotion of the NBA 2K League suggesting a less regional approach to the promotion of the league may be looming. This will create a very interesting dynamic as the league grows.
The easy pickings for initial fans for this league will be to promote it to your local audience with tie-ins and integrations of current NBA players for promotions and storylines. NBA players meeting their 2K League counterparts for the same organization is a great story, right? Potentially, but the flip side is if you tie a primarily streamed and online esport to its corresponding city-based team, you are regionalizing your potential fan base thus limiting the potential reach and revenue.
The alternative side of the argument is that by integrating a player from, let’s say, Mavs Gaming into the Dallas Mavericks basketball machine you are creating an opportunity to build the brand of the esports athlete to a potentially whole new audience.
It will be important for the NBA 2K League to integrate those who watch the NBA and currently play NBA 2k into loyal esports fans. Figuring out how to transition fans into the esports arena will be key for the NBA moving forward and it will require cross-integration of the NBA and NBA 2K teams.
The success and failure of the NBA 2K League will go a long way in establishing future leagues around other gaming titles such as Madden and FIFA.
Whether they are chasing a new younger audience like NASCAR or trying to tap into a new segment of their existing fans like the NBA, the key will be to do so organically, while making sure they are not alienating those who already support them. It will also be key to not miss out on the easy integrations like integrating your partner schools as a collegiate conference.
At the end of the day, traditional sports will continue to integrate esports at a rapid rate so long as they feel they can add value to their fan bases and their wallets at the same time.