Get Ready for the Esports Invasion

canadian-league-2-squareThis post is adapted from an article in the July, 2016 issue of The Sponsorship Report.

In Asian markets, massive open-air stadiums will pack with millennials, many in elaborate costume, to stare at video screens, gasp and cheer as teams with names like Immortals, and Liquid, and players with handles like Faker, Aui_2000 and Bjergsen do fierce battle in video games like League of Legends or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. The players are mostly young men in their early twenties, celebrities, often millionaires, surrounded by teams of agents and handlers, gods within the rapidly expanding community of esports fans.

Get ready. It’s coming to Canada.

Last September, Cineplex paid US$10 million to acquire the assets of World Gaming and promised another $5 million to help establish a competitive gaming league. This summer, the Canadian League of Gamers launched Northern Arena, billed as Canada’s first-ever professional esports league, with live events staged in conjunction with September’s Fan Expo in Toronto and November’s 7th Annual Canadian Video Game Awards in Montreal. Bell Canada has just been announced as Northern Arena’s presenting sponsor (title sponsorship is not being sold), and Canadian League of Gamers co-founder Carl-Edwin Michel says there are more announcements to come.

The global esports business is very big – gross revenues estimated at US$1.3 billion by 2018, and a global audience in excess of 427 million by 2019 according to figures provided by the Canadian League of Gamers. Very little of that is from Canada, and that’s what makes it such an exciting proposition. Passion for esports is like a wave. It has crested in Asia, is now rolling over Europe, and is beginning to touch North American shores.

Thierry St-Jacques Gagnon, President of esports organizer and agency Cyber Entertainment Agency, describes the Canadian market as immature. China and Korea are the leading markets, he says. Outside of those two, however, he feels fandom is on the cusp of explosive growth as second generation fans enter the market with interest and loyalty nurtured in the bosom of the family. Leagues and events no longer have to buy broadcast time. Television and digital platforms are now competing for broadcast rights. US broadcaster TBS and agency WME/IMG have partnered on a new esports league, and TBS is airing 20 live events over the course of 2016. Twitch, the leading digital platform for esports, reports that it has more than 13,000 channels and more than 100 million unique monthly users. It’s global, live and on-demand, available 24/7. And it’s a magnet for millennials.

Michel places Northern Arena and Cineplex at the forefront of esports in Canada. Cineplex is targeting the casual gamers, he says. Northern Arena is aiming at the pros. He expects the next two years to be the true tipping point for the sport in Canada because it has only recently taken off in the US. We’re next. According to esports market intelligence company Newzoo, “In 2016, North America will strengthen its lead in terms of revenues with an anticipated $175 million generated through merchandise, event tickets, sponsorships, online advertising and media rights.”

Northern Arena will be the esports equivalent of the Canadian Football League, says Michel – a Canadian league, but with players drawn from around the world. It will include a series of online qualifying events that, Michel says, will help grow the ranks of Canadian professional players. The top qualifiers will earn expense paid trips to three main events (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver) that will be the pinnacle of Northern Arena competition.

“In Canada, it’s suggested that there are over 6 million people playing PVP  [player vs. player]-based computer games,” says David Rivers Bell’s Director, National Sponsorship. Even if it’s overstated, it’s a big number, and an important number because they are overwhelmingly millennials.  “Millennials to me are one of the hardest segments in Canada to reach,” he says. They don’t subscribe to television. They don’t have a home phone, cutting out two key channels for a company like Bell. “They have Internet and mobile,” the two platforms on which Bell will deliver Northern Arena’s product. “For me, it’s critical that I establish a relationship with that audience in formats that they’re familiar with.”

It’s a digital platform so messaging can be geotagged. “We can tell them exactly where and when they were connected, where they’re from, what time they were connected and for how long,” says Michel.

Fans don’t just watch. They interact with each other. Numbering hundreds of thousands from around the world, they are connected with each other, engaging in their own running commentary as the game progresses. Its a unique environment, a unique culture, and one where sponsors need to tread carefully.

Not all brands are right for this platform or this market, says St-Jacques Gagnon. Sponsors can expect immediate online feedback if the audience smells a rat. It can be nasty.

“It’s the sport or the entertainment of the future,” says Michel, which is why Bell Media is also part of the partnership – not to deliver esports on a subscription service that millennials shun, explains Rivers, but to understand and take an active role in its development as a professional sport in Canada.

The weekend duffer marvels at what a touring professional golfer can do with such ease. The esport fan watches in slack-jawed amazement as  professional players and teams perform feats within familiar games that a casual player could never even contemplate. It is conventional sports fandom in an arena that may seem unconventional today, but may soon be commonplace.

Hear more about esports, fan fests and other pop culture properties from Liam Fleming, Director, Sponsorship & Strategic Partnerships
 at Fan Expo HQ. Liam will be presenting at Sponsorship Toronto on Wednesday, October 26, 2016.

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