What Marketers Can Learn from the NBA’s Use of Esports to Grow Audiences

Conor O'Malley  | 

A rising tide lifts all boats, right? That seems to be the idea behind the National Basketball Association’s NBA 2K League, an esports league of its own based on the popular NBA 2K video game series. Because, counterintuitive as it may seem, the expanding universe of competitive gaming enthusiasts has tremendous potential to help the traditional sports world expand its own audience at home and abroad.

It’s an idea that is as smart as it is novel. Competitive, organized video gaming is a multibillion-dollar global business with a digitally savvy, affluent and fast-growing audience. And to the NBA, esports is also a high-value marketing tool for fan acquisition. Now in its second year, the NBA’s experiences with its 2k League offer marketers in all industries some guidelines for successfully leveraging esports players and fans to increase brand awareness. Here are three points for marketers to keep in mind.

Insight and Authenticity Are the Keys for Unlocking Access to Large and Unique Audience
According to eMarketer’s first-ever esports-focused forecast, the number of esports viewers is expected to increase 52.5% between now and 2023 when it will reach 46.2 million. Marketers can tap into this growing industry through many means, including ads, sponsorships, branded content, endorsements and influencer marketing but understanding the unique characteristics of esports players and fans is the critical first step.

“As a marketer, you’d better do your homework so that you understand the community, understand the language, understand how this digital-savvy audience responds to messages and content and advertisement,” said Dan Kelley, director of corporate marketing at HyperX, the gaming division of Kingston Technology Corporation.

Capitalize on High Engagement Digital Entry Points
Like “regular” sports fans, esports viewers have the same passion for favorite teams, players and leagues but are different in key ways: They prefer digital over traditional viewing platforms, tend to spend large amounts of time and attention on those platforms, are mostly young, male and affluent and have deep connections with their favorite esports athletes. As a result, they prize authenticity in marketing alliances—which makes them effective brand ambassadors but an elusive marketing target. In short, they’re an attractive target audience, but marketers need to understand where and how to reach them.

For the NBA, it was easy to hit all those requirements. First there’s the fact that the NBA 2K video game was popular, giving the franchise an authentic position in gaming. Instead of forcing a link, they’re getting people to enter NBA fandom organically, through playing the video game. That’s a high-engagement entry point and a highly successful means of creating linkages between sports and audiences. It’s not surprising that several brands, not just the NBA, see the 2K League as an opportunity.

Cross Pollinate through Cross-Over Partnerships
Brendan Donohue, managing director, NBA 2K League, told eMarketer that optimizing partnerships can be another way of growing audiences.

“Twitch has 15 million daily active users on its platform, and we’ve seen—through our partnership with them—that a lot of esports enthusiasts are crossing over and checking out the 2K League,” he said. “Going into Season 2, we see a lot more non-endemic brands realizing they need to invest here. And that is newer to esports.”

In the future, non-endemic sponsors will play a more significant role in the esports space. Last year, data from Nielsen Esport24 showed that non-endemic esports sponsorships made up 39% of the market.

As esports grows, it will also bring in more viewers outside of its direct niche. According to NewZoo, 253 million esports viewers will watch more than once a month in 2019. But an additional 201 million viewers will tune in less than once a month, indicating the growth of a more casual, mainstream audience.

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