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By 2020, esports was an undeniable cultural phenomenon, with growth continuing to surge. By 2021, audience count hit a cool 474 million worldwide. Can this trend continue? That’s a definitive yes, according to the recent Google for Games market research report, “Beyond 2021: Where does gaming go next?

Watching esports and live-streamed content ranked highest of all forms of gaming engagement across the world, according to the report. And in the wake of the pandemic, analysts predict a growth to 920.3 million by 2024, which is a CAGR of +9.2%.

“As 2020 ended and we hit such highs for esports, the question was, how can we replicate this in 2021?” says Kendra Johnson, director and global head of gaming publishers at YouTube. “2021 was even bigger in terms of engagement, audience, number of events, and number of games that added a competitive esports element to their content strategy. The growth of content across live-streaming and VOD is an essential aspect of the gaming experience and is only accelerating.  Those of us at YouTube and Google are very bullish on what’s to come in 2022 for esports.”

The esports audience is a key factor in a game’s success, Google found in the report. That means game developers need to expand their engagement strategies to continuously connect with their content creators and audience, beyond the launch hype — it’s essential to nurture the community that’s in a decisive position to help promote a game. Here’s a closer look at the esports phenomenon, and the opportunities that lie ahead for industry professionals who are in the loop.

The state of the esports world

In a world where in-person connection is at a premium, players (and their followers) need to find ways to connect and talk trash more than ever before. To that end, they’re gathering on platforms like Twitch, YouTube, and Huya. From NewZoo’s data, game content across YouTube and Twitch generated a combined 25 billion live hours watched in 2020, marking a 76% increase over 2019, Google found. And in 2021’s first five months, fans watched 13.6 billion live hours across YouTube and Twitch. Online video channels have become the second-most trusted source of game discovery after friends and peers, with these channels rising in importance as players reach veteran status — and those veterans are more likely to spend as well.

And about a third of all those surveyed are expecting their consumption of game content to increase in 2022. It’s expected to rise 39% more than current levels in the U.S.

And it’s a global sensation. Esports have been embraced in Latin America, in Asia, southeast Asia, the middle east, and eastern Europe, with its popularity fueled by the rise in mobile gaming. This global expansion of esports super-fandom is meeting a surge in content creation, making it not only a great time to be an esports enthusiast, but offering big opportunity for gamers to get on board, and for developers to retain and engage a passionate audience, Johnson says. And with a game’s viewing audience in such a powerful position to help promote games, it’s crucial for game developers to focus engagement strategies on these fans.

“Developers who are focusing on fostering creation around community and fandom, whether it’s esports or their regular content needs, will find an opportunity for growth,” she says. “They can tap into the community and share that excitement and fandom through the programs they’re building locally, regionally, and nationally.”

But beyond the play on the competitive pitch, the boom in investment across the entire esports space is also driving growth. There’s action from the companies that organize the tournaments, like the ESL Gaming and FACEIT merger and purchase. There’s money pouring into the ecosystem that supports fans, such as esports betting platform Midnite recently raising $16 million. And for the players, there’s PlayVS, the scholastic esports platform (slash esports talent pipeline) partnering with Activision Blizzard to add Hearthstone to the spring 2022 season lineup. That’s just for starters. 

What’s behind the staying power of esports?

The big wave of esports excitement from all corners of the industry during the pandemic shouldn’t be surprising – community has always been a major factor for gaming audiences, and esports fosters community. It’s also never been easier to create that community. During the pandemic, the meteoric rise in gaming as a way to connect virtually has also translated into a rise in audience for streaming, with both long-term fans and new ones finding places to meet each other online, showing up for a variety of content. Google found that fans in North America are watching everything from straight-up gameplay (31%) to esports competitions (19%) and related content. And this across-the-board fandom is what makes esports so sticky.

“Not only are these fans just deeply connected to their regional teams competing on a global stage, but they’re also active players of the game,” Johnson says. “They’re constantly being drawn back into a competitive scene as a viewer and as a player.”

There are also so many touch points for fans, and so many opportunities to continue to see competitive play at higher and higher levels, from the local and national to the global, which keeps viewers glued to their screens and returning to their communities regularly.

“We’re seeing the power of community and chat on a streaming platform drives and deepens engagement and stickiness,” she says. “Everybody is watching together and a part of the broader conversation, with even the broadcasters engaging with chat. Those are the kinds of innovations that really make it a much stickier experience for fans.”

The opportunities for brands, creators, and publishers

Appointment live streaming has offered a great opportunity for brands, creators, and publishers to rouse their fanbase, a clarion call to gather and share the big moments together, which is really powerful in the gaming community, Johnson says.

Streaming platforms have made these appointments even more engaging for viewers. For instance, YouTube rolled out a number of tools to improve the experience of livestreaming on the platform, such as premieres, redirects, and countdown clocks to galvanize audience excitement and bring viewers together.

“We’re really encouraged by how much publishers are able to see the value of Live and connecting with their community,” she says. “From a community side, we’re investing more in live discovery, as well as in our chat functionality. You see chat during live stream really deepening that community engagement.”

Part of that is embracing that huge chunk of the gaming audience — about 45% percent strong — that identify as women or girls. There’s a clear opportunity here to attract a long-neglected, undeniably lucrative demographic to competitive play, and significantly broaden the audience along the way. And while male North American viewers outnumber female viewers by almost 2 to 1 (for now), the audience for live-streamed game content is 43% female.

“It’s an undeniable fact that there’s a great proportion of women driving engagement, play, and spend in video games,” Johnson says. “It feels like a real blue-sky opportunity for all the components of the esports ecosystem to dig in.”

To crunch the esports numbers and get even more insights into the opportunities opening up for game developers beyond 2021, download the free Google for Games market research reports, “Beyond 2021: Where does gaming go next?”

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