Esports Branding – Challenges & Opportunities
Branding in esports can be a tough onion to peel. Players are seeking to build their brands to either establish themselves as streamers or to get picked up by a team. Both teams and leagues are trying to establish their own identities with a couple of goals. First off, a well-executed brand identity can become a sponsorable platform, which is critical for the advertising and sponsorship dollars required to grow the sport. Secondly, a compelling brand identity opens up a substantial revenue stream in the form of merch and/or licensing. With all of these motivations in play, it’s no surprise that – sometimes – players, teams, and leagues can find themselves at cross purposes. While there’s no magic bullet to fix issues that can arise as the importance of branding grows for each of esports’ constituencies, there are some lessons to be gleaned from both early esports brand pioneers AND from the wealth of data available on the subject from the world of traditional sports.
The “individual vs. team or league” branding question is one whose complexity is unique to esports. Players and fans are – by virtue of the sport – much more technically sophisticated than their traditional sport analogs. Before most players can sell ads against their streams or get recruited to a team, they are streaming. These streams are always associated with at least a few kinds of social media distribution. In the absence of any kind of governing body for amateur/collegiate players, esports players are left in a kind of directionless lurch. On one hand, the player has The Path of the Troll. It’s an easy way to go…clever (or, sometimes, mean-spirited) contrarianism definitely gets attention and can gather follows and likes more quickly than other means. On the other hand, they can choose a path that would minimize the risk to potential sponsors or teams. As eGency Global’s COO, Greg Skasko, observes, “In order for esports to achieve their full potential, there needs to be stability for both players/teams/leagues AND advertisers/sponsors. Players who want to pursue esports as a profession need to think about their actions in the same way that teams and leagues do…Fortune 50 brands are not, for example, going to invest dollars behind anyone or anything that could put their brand at risk,” he says. “Put another way, you can be the most talented player and/or streamer in the world, but if you act like a hateful/insensitive jerk, you won’t be getting recruited by a team, and you won’t be getting sponsorship dollars for your stream. What’s more, you’re making it harder for others to do this for a living because you’d be providing sponsors with one more example of ‘brand risk’.”
“This is a fast changing world and unlike anything that’s come before it. Ten years ago, a player’s ‘brand’ could’ve been as simple as a three letter prefix to their handle; the branding opportunities between then and now are exponentially more sophisticated, so I think it’s incumbent on us to help up and coming players navigate these potentially tricky waters,” Skasko concludes.
So how do teams or leagues develop their own brands in light of the fact that players are developing their own, independent of any kind of real talent development infrastructure? The key, says Skasko, is approaching your team or league brand as more than a logo and tagline. “A lot of organizations – inside and outside of esports – approach branding as a few ‘to do’ items that are farmed out to agencies and then checked off when the final products come back,” he explains. “The reality is that branding comprises many, many different tasks that span from graphics, to motion graphics, to font, to editorial voice, to key colors, to consumer research. This means that teams and leagues need to approach their branding as systems instead of just a few deliverables.”
“Approaching your brand design as a system will offer you the kind of extensibility you’ll need to recruit players/teams and seek sponsorship,” Skasko continues. “The examples of this ‘brand as a system’ way of thinking are plentiful in the world of traditional sports, but a great one can be seen in the partnership between the Susan G Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys have some of the most iconic branding in the world of professional sports and – even if you aren’t a fan – you’re probably thinking of their blue and gray brand colors just by me mentioning their name. But if you look at marketing materials produced as part of their partnership, you’ll see that the blue is flipped with pink…it’s striking and it does the almost impossible: it makes you think simultaneously of the Cowboys AND Susan G Komen. The ability to flip a color and have that kind of recognition is a product of approaching brand identity as a system instead of a few, standalone components,” Skasko concludes.
How is this relevant to esports team or league branding? Think of it this way: if a team finds a recruit with a meaningful following, an extensible brand design system will allow them to market the recruit to that following without sacrificing the team’s core brand identity. Colors can be changed out, icons can be added and/or switched out to signal the addition of the recruit, all without having to sacrifice the core of the brand. It’s a similar story for sponsor partnerships; the ability to cue the sponsorship while maintaining the credibility of the core brand values opens up a sea of opportunity.
Regardless of which angle you approach the esports branding question, the goals are the same for players and teams or leagues: to make esports as successful as their potential is currently teasing. Proactivity, it would seem, is the name of the game for everyone involved. With near unprecedented direct access to millions of fans, aspiring players need to be careful in their approach to fan engagement. Teams and leagues, on the other hand, need to forge their own brands with the full understanding that their recruits will most likely bring their own brand identities to the table; proactively creating brand identity systems to allow for each player’s unique attributes is going to the key to creating an esports ecosystem that maximizes the opportunity for everyone involved.