Anheuser-Busch is one of the brands that isn’t shy about embracing esports. It is a non-endemic brand, meaning it isn’t born and bred with gamers the way that, say, esports headsets are. It’s a mainstream brand looking to break into the previously insular world of esports a with authentic experiential marketing.
Some brands have been wary of the unpredictability of esports. The games come and go. The athletes can blow big deals with their big mouths. And fans don’t always behave in a becoming way at esports events. But it’s the job of Joe Barnes, director of experiential marketing at Anheuser-Busch InBev, to make sure that his company is represented in the right way in front of the right consumers of esports as the “official beer of esports.”
There’s a lot of money at stake, but Barnes believes that big brands have to be nimble when it comes to getting behind a big trend among young adults. He isn’t waiting for competitors to arrive. He is pushing ahead of them with the mission of making Bud Light and other Anheuser-Busch products the beer of choice for a new generation of esports fans. I’ll be moderating a session with Barnes at the Esports BAR Miami event in October.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What does your job entail? The experiential part is intriguing there.
Joe Barnes: I lead the Anheuser Busch portfolio in the U.S. I lead our sports sponsorship strategy. Additionally I do the experiential marketing for esports, soccer, and our emerging properties, which also covers fighting and women’s sports and a few other things. Our experiential marketing team is part of our consumer connections team. We’re focusing on how we can impact and influence consumer decisions at the point of their passion points.
With Bud Light, one of those is esports. We’re trying to–how can we get fans to start experiencing our product in a different way? Right now, within esports, our biggest challenge is that there’s not the traditional norms within the sports industry where it’s very in-person and communal. “We’re going to bars to watch the games. We’re gonna watch the NFL game at the sports bar and get pitchers of Bud Light.”
It’s much different within esports. That’s where experiential for us is a big lever that we try to pull. At events, the consumers are with community, not just their virtual community. That gives us a true point to interact with them and introduce them to Bud Light. As crazy as it sounds, a lot of these consumers that are becoming the 21-27 year old are growing up without drinking Bud Light, or beer at all. Their main drink is Red Bull, energy drinks. We’re trying to bring in these beer occasions to esports, just like we’ve established 100 years ago within traditional sports.
GamesBeat: I don’t know how much gamers drink beer. Are you guys endemic or non-endemic to games and esports?
Barnes: We definitely consider ourselves non-endemic. The key challenge, when people ask us–what’s our value proposition in esports? We’re not going to make your internet faster. We’re not going to make your screen bigger. We’re not going to give you better posture in a nice chair. For us, we can offer the fan something different.
This week we announced another Twitch program, and in another month we’ll be announcing another one. The Bud Light Twitch channel is our key asset within esports. First and foremost, in this community, we’re able to age gate our channel, so only 21 and up is able to interact with Bud Light. That obviously a huge concern with the traditionally younger audience. But within our Bud Light Twitch channel, we can offer gamers something in addition to the game.
We’re not endemic, like I say. We’re not part of the game. But what we can do–I’ll give you an example. We just launched, this past Tuesday, the Bud Light Beer League, which is an amateur Tekken tournament. Amateurs can win a chance to become a pro esports athlete and compete at the Tekken grand finals in Bangkok for a huge payout. Our value proposition here is that we’ll host a tournament, and we’re going to do it for gamers, not just esports athletes. We’re going to give them the opportunity to win prizes. And what can Bud Light do that someone else can’t do? We’ll give you a chance to become a pro.
That’s much different from our strategy with Overwatch League. We’re the official beer sponsor of Overwatch League. Our Twitch channel content with that one, it’s Bud Light Happy Hour. Every week we have two hosts talking for 20 minutes, essentially a Sportscenter of Overwatch League, where they look at the past and they talk about key storylines coming up. It’s set at a bar environment with beers, with neons and things, just to establish that–as you’re hanging out and talking about esports, it’s happy hour. Get excited about tonight and have some Bud Light. That’s the behavior that we’re trying to get people introduced to.
Then, within Overwatch League, since this is the first year they’ve ever done live in-person events, we also sponsor all of the homestand weekends. We had consumer experiences and giveaways. We put them in what we call the Bud Light Watchtower, playing on the Overwatch IP. It’s the most premium seat within all the venues, where we’ll invite guests to hang out with influencers, streamers and professional gamers. Free Bud Light, the best seats, and the best experience you could possibly have. When you drink Bud Light, when you’re playing games and Bud Light’s your beer of choice, the opportunities are endless for cool experiences. We consider ourselves the leader in terms of offering premium experiences for consumers.
GamesBeat: There’s been a lot of attention on esports hype. There was a long Kotaku story that talked about the mismeasurement of the audiences. I’ve interviewed someone from Nielsen — that story just ran — on how they’re doing measurement of the esports audience as well. These things are brand new. The information and the data still needs work.
Barnes: 100 percent. We do our own independent data collection. We do partner with Nielsen, and we value them and their partnership across all of our sports properties. That’s one of the reasons we use them. We also use a few other research companies, and then we always have–if we’re doing streams we have Twitch analytics. If we’re doing events we have exit surveys. We have a whole lot that–right now the key for us is data collection. Whether the true audience size of Overwatch League fans is 10 million or if it’s 100 million, for us right now, using whatever the data is, how can we use that data to inform how we interact with the fans?
It’s not necessarily about the numbers. We know the numbers are big. We may not know exactly how big. But for us what’s most interesting is, what are the consumer habits? What are the consumer passion points? How do we offer value back to the fans?
GamesBeat: In some sense I guess you would like better measurement, but there’s enough precision out there for you to take action and do what you need to do.
Barnes: That’s exactly it. For us it’s more about, are we asking the right questions with the research? Rather than, do we have the exact right sample data, and do we know the exact figures? For us it’s about fine-tuning the right questions and finding the right passion points for consumers.
GamesBeat: As far as the comparisons people make to traditional sports, what are your own observations about that? How soon do you think this catches up, or in what ways will they always be different?
Barnes: There is some crossover, and that’s what–when we’re trying to segment the real size of the prize, we look at the different consumer groups. There are the passionate, die-hard esports fans and athletes, and then there’s more casual gamers. What we see with the crossover with traditional sports — and this is very rich territory, because we have a league sponsorship with three of the top four core leagues — we want to see what is the crossover and how we can act on that.
What’s really starting the big crossover is that pro athletes in other sports are playing video games, whether it’s on Twitch or in their free time. They’re all big gamers. Juju Smith-Schuster, right? He’s a big gamer and he plays in the NFL. He reaches both. For Bud Light that’s super compelling. He’s a partner with us with the NFL, and we can look at partnering with him for esports. How can we tap into both consumer bases? Most people out there play Fortnite, and most people watch the NFL. What are the efficiencies Bud Light could have with that?
The other thing we look at, we have some data that shows that amongst gaming fans, Game of Thrones was as popular as the NFL. That may not be their number two or three passion point behind video games, it’s still top 10. There’s a lot of ways we can use our NFL partnerships and others to reach those fans. Right now, most brands and most esports teams are focusing on the esports strategy. We think there’s a lot of rich territory for crossover between true sports and esports.
GamesBeat: As far as which esports to bet on, what are your views there? Do you feel like you have to make bets and back certain games or certain events? Or can you stay above that and reach the whole audience in some way?
Barnes: I don’t think there’s one league that could be a silver bullet for an esports strategy. When we look at it, it’s going to require multiple partnerships in order to reach a big portion of the fans. We want Bud Light to be for everyone. How do we get to the biggest level there? It’s a mix. As we’ve already announced, in 2019 we have partnerships with the Overwatch League, with Tekken 7, and with NBA2K. We prefer to be looking with those at how we can reach consumers, how we can keep new and interesting partnerships like the Beer League — which can rotate in different titles — so we can reach more and more fans. We also want to use influencers within key games and titles to influence and reach those consumers as well.
There has to be a mix. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach with one title. For us it’s a mix of assets. It’s about reach and what’s the best thing we can do to reach all those consumers, or at least a significant portion of them.
GamesBeat: So far, can you reiterate which games you’ve backed in some way, or that you’ve worked closely with and are happy with?
Barnes: We have our partnership with the Overwatch League, which is a global partnerships. Then, in the U.S., we have an NBA2K partnership, which we just announced at the end of our season. We’re planning 2020 right now. Then we have a Tekken 7 partnership, which will be for the Bud Light Beer League. It’ll be a mix of–it’s primarily Twitch streaming and the online tournament, and then there will be a few live event components as well. Overwatch League, for us that’s been a live event and a Twitch stream component as well. We’re looking for not only a mix of partners, but a mix of assets within each partnership.
GamesBeat: What about following some of these celebrity gamers, or top athletes within different esports? Would you do deals with individuals like that in addition to the league partnerships?
Barnes: Definitely. Arguably the most marketable and popular name would be Ninja. A few years ago, during our Bud Light All Stars program, which was before my time, we had a Ninja partnership. This year we’re partnered with a few influencers. We’ve used them more tactically, rather than just signing the biggest name. It’s about how we can use them to propel our Twitch content and help us to activate. We’ve been using influencer streams to promote our live events for Overwatch League. Before each homestand weekend we do influencer streams where they take over and give away consumer tickets to our Bud Light Watchtower experience.
Then, for 2020, we’re looking for partners that are, let’s say, endemic to beer. They already like to engage with the product. They have a large reach and are playing various titles. That’s great for us, because while it’s sometimes difficult for us to be involved with certain games, we can partner with the top streamers — as long as they’re over 21 — to create cool content and give that back to consumers.
GamesBeat: Some people have always talked about how esports and games are unpredictable. Sometimes you get bad behavior among the athletes, or strange things happening at events. This is supposed to be scary to brands. What are your thoughts on that, whether that’s manageable?
Barnes: I can answer that question in a few parts. One, in the current environment, whether it’s traditional sports or esports, as a brand you have to be nimble. You have to act fast. You have to be able to react to trends and react to what’s going on.
We understand that esports is in its infancy, and there are challenges that come along with that. But for us it’s worth it, knowing that we can be the brand, the beer brand, that is the beer of esports. We’re the official beer of esports, the official beer of games, the official beer of gamers. We did that for a reason. When we look at what consumers are talking about on social media, we have 70 percent share of voice amongst beer brands. Our competitors aren’t even really in the same sphere as us right now, and we want to keep leaning into that. As this grows, we know that we’ll continue to grow with it, and we can continue to dominate the share of esports.
As far as the question around titles, yes, we’re constantly watching what’s hot, what’s up and coming. You look at what happened this summer. Was Fortnite going to get dethroned by a little-known title from EA? And then a few weeks later, it fell off the radar. We need to continue to monitor, continue to watch, and that’s great for us, because it’s an opportunity to work with the top streamers. They can switch playing games. When something’s hot they can play that. When it falls off they can play something else and still reach their fanbase.
We have to be nimble. We have to be a part of it. We can’t just be a big, slow brand. We have to be able to act within the space at the pace it’s going.
GamesBeat: How do you find the right people in this business in order to do all those things fast? As you say, it’s fairly new still.
Barnes: The key thing for us is research. We like to make fact-based decisions. Of course we have to play in the margin of error, because it’s always changing so fast. We have to use good judgment. But we have a great team of agencies that support us on all our initiatives, help provide that research, help provide the insight on everything that’s going on.
GamesBeat: Is the team pretty large there, that focuses on esports?
Barnes: I lead it for Bud Light in the U.S. I’m supported by the brand team. They’re doing everything else. It’s a bit of a team effort internally. But then I also have my agencies that are more solely focused on esports. I have teams that are dedicated, that are experts in the space. They’re former gamers, former publishers. They offer the expertise and insight that can really help us to refine our strategy and act quickly.
GamesBeat: Do you happen to know Mark Friedler? He’s a long-time gaming person that just joined Anheuser Busch on the biz dev side for esports.
Barnes: I’ve had one call with Mark. He’s consulting with our ZX Ventures arm. Our ZX Ventures mission is to disrupt ourselves. What are these trends that could disrupt beer, and how do we essentially become a part of it before it can eat us alive? He’s consulting on the gaming aspect of that, because like I mentioned earlier, there’s not a ritual within esports like going to the bar on Sunday to watch the NFL. We’re looking at how we can bring these experiences, these rituals, into the U.S. gamer’s world.
GamesBeat: TopGolf is converting a lot of their bars into esports bars recently for local gatherings.
Barnes: Yeah, TopGolf is a great partner. Usually when they roll into town they become one of the top beer sellers in their market, because people really love the value proposition. If they continue to expand into esports or more VR types of activities, I consider that a win. They put their beverage venue at the top of the list for their priorities. It always helps us when we can help the category expand in this space.
GamesBeat: You have to think about a lot of different opportunities as far as how to get a win for a product.
Barnes: Definitely. What we’re seeing, this is such a digitally native, such an on-demand type of consumer. It’s different from who we try to reach with, say, Major League Baseball. There, you have an older fan. They skew to an age around 45. Gamers skew around 23. How beer comes to life for them is much different.
What we did two weeks ago for the Overwatch League homestand weekend in Los Angeles, we did a Drizly promotion targeting L.A. with one of the top players on the L.A. Valiant. Drizly is an online alcohol delivery service. We said, “Hey, L.A., you guys like tech. You don’t like doing things in person. But if you order Bud Light from Drizly, you’ll get the chance to not only get your beer, but your beer could be delivered by Custa from the L.A. Valiant, and he’ll give you VIP passes to the Bud Light Watchtower.”
Custa went out and delivered that beer to an unexpecting consumer. He’s from Australia, so he ended up what they call shooting the boot, shotgunning it out of a shoe. He did it with the consumer. Everyone had a great time. For us, that’s how we break through. We’re not going to be talking to the Valiant consumer in the way that they want to be reached. We want to be content creators, not content interrupters. We want to have them tune in to watch something because they think it’s cool — it’s their favorite player and their favorite team — rather than just serving them an ad on Twitch.
When you’re non-endemic you have to think much differently about the space. You have to find ways to offer value to the consumer while the endemic brands are doing it in a much different way.
GamesBeat: What do you plan to talk about at Esports BAR in Miami?
Barnes: Stuart Saw and I are co-keynoting. Endeavor is our esports agency in the U.S. We have a lot of programs that we’ve developed together between Anheuser Busch and Endeavor. For a lot of it, it’s going to be talking about what we’re doing to reach consumers as a non-endemic brand. It’s exactly what we’ve talked about, but in more detail, with more videos and concrete examples that people can see, as well as some of the data.
By October we’ll have a lot of data for how this is working so far. We just ran our first social listening test, where we figured out that we’re now 70 percent of social share voice, which is huge for us. Consumers aren’t talking about beer brands because they want to. It’s because we’re offering something crazy and unique to them, something that gets them excited. They’re talking about this in their free time. It’s not just industry. We hope to have a lot more of those examples by then.
In addition, we’re hoping to have a very cool–it’s not fully finalized, but a very cool Overwatch League grand finals activation. We’re hoping to propel that message beyond what just core gamers and Overwatch League fans care about, but also transcend the message for the whole city of Philadelphia. Bud Light has a very rich history with Philadelphia, with things like the Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl win, where we gave free beer to the city of Philadelphia. For this to come back to Philly, there’s a lot of excitement and a lot of cool things we’re planning. The Overwatch League finals are the week before Esports BAR, so we’re hoping to share a lot of cool things, and a full Overwatch League recap as well.
GamesBeat: Is your whole industry as active as you guys are, or do you feel like you’re ahead?
Barnes: We’re significantly ahead of our competitors. That’s where we want to be. We have much different approaches to esports. Our competitor, earlier in the year, their big esports moment of the year was announcing that they were turning a beer can into a controller. They had an event at E3 where the controller couldn’t connect to Bluetooth and no one could play.
We really try to stay clear, like I said, of being an endemic brand that will make your gameplay better. We want to be the beer for fans, the beer for casual gamers, and the beer for esports athletes when they’re not on the screen, so to speak. We want to play to our strengths. It’s just a much different approach.