The XLive Esports Summit featured a number of panels by industry professionals around the topic of esports, but a common thread ran through all the presentations: How can brands appeal to esports’ growing audience? Xlive specializes in hosting conferences that focus on live events and esports, and almost 200 people attended its fourth summit yesterday in New York City.

The word “authentic” received a cheeky soft ban by event organizers as a term that’s overused. It was an attempt to gently steer speakers into actionable advice and case studies around how brands can approach esports communities with sincerity. Overwhelmingly, most of the folks who took the stage delivered a message of reassurance to non-endemic brands (companies not traditionally associated with gaming). Though some organizations have tried to tap into the esports audience only to flame out and crash, it doesn’t have to be that way.

“The water is warm. You should jump in,” encouraged ReKTGlobal CEO David Bialek. “It is an environment that actually is excited to have you.”

The caveat is that companies have to approach the space with patience and research. A line repeated by several different panelists is that companies need to have a consistent commitment to their sponsorships — and that esports isn’t some monolith. Instead, it’s a space that’s nuanced with each game appealing to different demographics and sometimes entirely different markets.

“North American brands want to target a North American audience. Esports is very much global. That’s confusing to people,” said Damage Esports cofounder Johnny Ward in an interview with GamesBeat. His agency seeks to help their clients find the right esports titles, teams, and leagues as entry points into the space.

Choosing the right game

Above: Xlive Esports Summit’s program and event director Kye Browning introduces the event.

Image Credit: Xlive

Ward and Bialek both sat on a panel called “The sponsorship landscape.” Towards the end of that talk, moderator Steven Asarch of Newsweek brought up the idea that a lot of brands are interested in doing some kind of advertising with Epic Games’ Fortnite simply because of how popular it is.

“The problem with Fortnite is there aren’t a lot of places to go. Not yet. It’s coming, but there aren’t a lot of places to actually make a meaningful investment and actually support it with strategy,” said Bialek. “Unless you are going to sponsor Ninja or DrLupo or one of the other influencers — you’re talking about one-off events for the most part and that is going to change, it starts changing in two months, but to this point, there’s really not a lot you can do in the space.”

“If my client came to me and came to me ‘All I want is Fortnite, I don’t care about anything else,’ I’d just say, ‘You’re nuts. You gotta start thinking more holistically about this,'” said Ward. “And then I’d dig down into their objectives. Why do you want to do this?”

Just as the panelists finished advising the audience against doggedly pursuing Fortnite, a foreboding peal of thunder crashed outside and it began pouring rain. It seemed that the weather agreed with the panelists’ somber warnings.

Rather than just chasing Fortnite, Next Generation Esports’ chief strategy officer Jason Woo said, “Define what a win is to you. If a win is just moving the needle just a little bit, sure. If it’s engaging with an audience that already has a spending culture in mind, and loyalty in mind, then use a little more thoughtfulness.”

The creative agency Momentum Worldwide’s director of esports Tatiana Tacca says that different titles provide different benefits. A League of Legends event might have 300 attendees in the arena, while the Overwatch League Grand Finals sold out Barclays Center in Brooklyn. She also notes that each game speaks to its own audience, similar to traditional sports where Major League Baseball fans might differ from folks who are passionate about the National Football League.

“When I look at title approaches, what scenes to get into, I take a look at the best opportunities based on the community, based on those individual numbers,” said Tacca in an interview with GamesBeat. “What’s the concurrent and peak viewership? How much social conversation is going on? If you look at Rocket League, Super Smash Bros, Street Fighter — Dragon Ball Fighterz is a really big game now, the most watched game at Evo this year. There’s a massive community around that, great social conversation, a strong amount of passion. The entry points are less expensive than some of the bigger titles.”

Ward says that brands don’t have to be shy about the fact that they’re there to sell a product or service. They can be upfront about that — but what matters is long-term commitment, as opposed to a one-time sponsorship.

“You drive sales for that particular product or service. There’s no harm in saying that. This is business,” said Ward. “If you want to do that properly, though, and in a good way, you have to support the community, and by supporting it, one of the pieces is you have to stay in here. You have to be consistent.”

Case studies

Above: ESPN host Arda Ocal moderates a panel with Team SoloMid’s chief revenue officer Brad Sive and Dr Pepper Snapple Group’s vice president of media Blaise D’Sylva.

The brands in the room were extremely conscious of the dangers of “becoming a meme.” Dr. Pepper Snapple Group’s vice president of media Blaise D’Sylva explained how they avoided it when they partnered with League of Legends squad Team SoloMid. They rolled out unique TSM-branded bottles of Dr. Pepper, cheeky GIFs of the players featuring over-the-top explosions and lasers, a short video advertisement where the team transformed into Team SodaMid. These marketing campaigns fit the players’ personalities, which led the fans to embrace the brand instead of reject it.

NFL director of consumer products strategy David Highhill and EA’s Madden competitive gaming commissioner Matt Marcou discussed how the Madden NFL Club Championship series engaged with players by involving professional football teams. The tournament sits between traditional sports and esports in terms of its audience, drawing from a pool of football fans as well as gamers. As part of the tournament, players vie to officially represent their favorite teams, which ups the stakes.

Production company ReKTGlobal’s vice president of esports Kevin Knocke says that the key for brands is to make bespoke content for esports audiences. He points to the insurance firm State Farm as an example, which sponsors the NBA 2K League. However, the brand had to be careful about how it positioned itself because “not a lot of young people are super-enthusiastic about insurance.”

“Fundamentally, how can we rethink and re-approach how we target younger customers? From that we built a strategy that was very much, we’re going to completely disregard all traditional advertisers that we’re given,” said Knocke in an interview with GamesBeat. “Every piece of normal ad roll that State Farm has been given up to this point, they’ve said, cool, no thanks. Instead we’ll create these little segments or pieces that we’ll put in that place.”

ReKTGlobal is also taking the tack of spotlighting players. It’s partnered with NBC and Psyonix on content for the Universal Open Rocket League tourney, producing behind-the-scenes stories and videos starring Team Rogue players who are competing. Most of the fans have responded positively to this kind of content, though occasionally naysayers will pop up in the comments. Knocke says that the pushback against any kind of sponsored content is a challenge that the industry faces, though it can be mitigated if the videos make sense.

“I think there’s been this tug-of-war between fans that are so used to getting high quality niche content that’s specific to their interests, delivered straight to the channels they want to go to, and it’s all free. It’s adblocked,” said Knocke. “There’s no concept of pay per view in esports. No concept of paying for anything, other than if you walk into an event and pay to sit down in person. That’s a big roadblock for a lot of people. How do we get over this? How do we expose our content to this generation? I think that’s not solved yet.”

Toxicity in esports

Ward brought up toxicity in his panel, commenting that it’s a known problem in “any kind of sports.” This is the only time someone alluded to the topic on stage, even though the bombshell about sexual harassment at Riot dropped just last week. Even though the talks didn’t directly address toxicity in and around esports, it was clearly on people’s minds. When a woman next to me saw “GamesBeat” on my name tag, she immediately asked me about the Riot allegations.

Knocke was outraged by what he described as “the inequity in the industry.” However, he says that he hasn’t seen any negative consequences from the Riot exposé on the brand side.

“A lot of brands said, ‘Eh, that’s what happens in gaming,'” said Knocke. “So right now, I don’t think there is, unfortunately, anything that is really done as a result of that news or those problems or anything like that. That’s analytically how I view it. Personally, though, it should change. Hopefully this is the first wakeup call that tells the core competitive esports audience that stuff like this is rampant throughout the industry, that these problems infect a lot of aspects of our lives, and there should be more of a negative reaction to it. I didn’t see it this time, unfortunately.”

Ward says that the allegations of what’s happening at Riot are “awful.” Practically speaking, his agency takes what he describes as a multilayered approach. Its strategy is to identify a few different opportunities for its clients, so if something happens with a player or tournament, then the brand has other channels to reach its audience.

“We don’t rely on just one title or one team or one tournament, because bad things can happen,” said Ward. “We mitigate that risk by, again, with the appropriate and correct marketing layers that allow us to reach the same demographic, but from many different angles, so they’re protected if something odd happens, or if someone without the proper media training says something inappropriate.”

Tacca says that the esports audience is beginning to change. It’s still primarily male, but more women are starting to get involved. And brands that seek female customers can find some opportunities there.

“I think from a non-endemic perspective, there are a lot of opportunities now for women-targeted brands to come in to the space,” said Tacca. “Sephora, for instance, just partnered with the Girl Gamer Esports Festival in Portugal. That was really exciting to see. There are a lot of initiatives in esports from an industry side, promoting women players in pro series. I recall CLG and Team Dignitas in particular are two teams that field women-specific teams. So there definitely is that growth. There’s that interest.”

“We always seem, in esports, to talk about a particular woman pro who’s doing well at any given point in time. In Rocket League we have a woman pro, Karma. In Fortnite we have a woman pro, Loeya. We have individuals that we point to, Geguri in Overwatch, but we don’t take a lot of time to fundamentally address why there are inequities in terms of gender distribution in esports,” said Knocke. “We’ve shown that if you look at the international database of everyone who games, it’s about a 50-50 split.

“The problem is we’ve fostered a culture for a long time of trying to either emphasize what men like about games and make it very male-centric, or in some cases definitely push away women and their involvement in games. Not to even begin to speak of the harassment that a lot of women face whenever they try to participate in the scene in whatever capacity. So I think, to a degree, over time we will slowly some of this start to change.”

As these demographics change, perhaps so too will brands’ reactions to situations like the Riot allegations, similar to how they pulled their ads from YouTube due to controversial content. For esports agencies and marketers, that’s just one more challenges to tackle in addition to educating their clients on what exactly it means to “get into esports.”