What Esports Fans Can Teach Brands about Sponsorship

Esports are exploding. That’s not news. Unsurprisingly, esports sponsorship is also exploding, and there is some great sponsorship happening in the sector.

On the flip side, there’s also a lot of money flowing into the sport that’s a combination of trying to “reach a coveted demographic” and me-tooism. And those sponsors? They’re failing, and they’re failing because esports fans know crap, inauthentic sponsorship when they see it. Fan backlash has been vicious, dispatching them from the arena as fast as they flooded in.

I love it.

I seriously love it.

I wish fans of all properties would hold sponsors accountable like that.

Why? Because those esports fans are right. A sponsor’s starting point with any fanbase is “interloper”. It’s not the fans’ job to show the sponsor love, but the other way around, and if the sponsors don’t know, or care, enough to respect and add real value to the fan experience, they don’t belong there.

So, where has this gone wrong for failed esports sponsors, and what can we all learn from it? Here’s my take.

Reaching a “coveted demographic”

This has been heralded all over marketing media as the main reason esports sponsorship should be attractive to brands. And yeah, with around 80% of the audience under 35, it is major concentration of an age group that’s becoming increasingly difficult to target in traditional channels.

The problem is that sponsorship isn’t about reaching a hard-to-reach demographic. It’s not about reaching anyone at all, and if a sponsor is just using esports as some kind of newfangled, outbound communications channel, they’re bound to come unstuck.

These are passionate, invested fans, not a captive data cluster for a brand to bombard with marketing messages – to “reach”. Sponsorship gives you the privilege of connecting with people through something they care about. This is about nurturing real, lasting relationships with fans, and if you’ve got the opportunity to create those meaningful, mutual connections, don’t use that opportunity to shoot them in the guts with a t-shirt cannon.

Me-tooism

Sponsorship gives you the privilege of connecting with people through something they care about. This is about nurturing real, lasting relationships with fans, and if you’ve got the opportunity to create those meaningful, mutual connections, don’t use that opportunity to shoot them in the guts with a t-shirt cannon.

I wore neon at university. Everyone else was wearing it, too, so I thought it made me cool. But it didn’t. The colours were so bad on me that my face took on sort of this greenish death-pallor, resulting in a look akin to Zombie Wham.

This is me-tooism at work.

But many sponsors have done the same thing with esports. They’ve rushed into a trend without putting the strategic nous and rigour into determining whether the trend is right for them and, frankly, whether they’re right for the trend.

Although I’m sure esports will continue to enjoy healthy growth for some time, eventually the trendy marketing sparkle will wear off, sponsors will stop losing their minds over it, and the next trend will come along.

A sponsor’s best defence against sponsorship me-tooism (and any other knee-jerk investments) is to set up your decision-making process now, and commit it to your sponsorship policy. This should include:

  • A streamlined process for culling any obvious mismatches – probably well upward of 90% of approaches
  • A structured deep dive into the fanbase and culture of any shortlisted opportunities

And if it’s still looking promising…

  • A collaborative process for deciding how you’re going to leverage it, and what benefits to negotiate for.

Importantly, you need to do all of this before making any commitments. It’s no good being first into a new category or trend or sport, if the fit and leverage are all wrong.

Thinking the old sponsorship model will work for the new breed of fans

The old model of sponsorship goes something like this:

“If people love this property, and we sponsor the property, and we make it really obvious we’re a sponsor, they’ll transfer some of that love to us.”

Often combined with:

“That property has some attributes that our brand doesn’t have, so if we sponsor that property, and make it really obvious that we’re a sponsor, some of those attributes will transfer onto our brand.”

This model is outmoded, disproven, and relies on the assumption that fans are stupid. But fans aren’t stupid, and they can spot a sponsor’s bloodless manipulation a mile away.

Still, many sponsors are so bought into this model of sponsorship that they continue to trot out this tired approach across jaw-dropping tech, paradigm-shifting properties, and fans that live very comfortably in a hyper-connected world.

They’re so bought in, they bypass entirely all of the authentic and meaningful opportunities to bond with these fans, in favour of hyperactive branding, intrusive promotions, and product endorsements that look like hostage videos. It’s better not to spend the money, if that’s what you’re going to do with it.

Not understanding the fans, the passion, the culture

My previous points are all valid – they’re all things a sponsor needs to get right – but they all pale in comparison to this one.

Esports isn’t just a sport. It’s a culture, a community, an entire ecosystem, both enjoyed and created by its fans. Their fan experience is multi-platform, infinitely customisable, and they’ve got direct channels to the teams and stars that were unheard of not long ago. This makes esports different from all other kinds of sponsorship, and more difficult for sponsors to get right.

Actually, that’s not true at all.

Virtually all fan experiences – sport or otherwise – are multi-platform, infinitely customisable, with direct channels to the movers and shakers. All fan experiences have a tribal, community component. They all have their own cultures. They’re all driven by passion. The difference is that in more established categories, fans just ignore terrible sponsorship, while esports fans actively work against it.  Let that sink in.

  • If you’re prepared to sponsor something without understanding the culture and passion behind it…
  • If you’re prepared to disrespect the fans and their experience…
  • If you’ve decided that when you bought those sponsorship “rights”, that gave you the right to disregard that culture, passion, and fan experience, in favour of a ham-fisted comms strategy that puts brand needs above the needs of the people you’re trying to influence…

If that’s what you’re prepared to do with your sponsorships, then the best you can hope for is to be ignored. And as fans across the spectrum continue to exert more power in the sponsorship equation, selfish, tone-deaf sponsors will see nothing but more backlash.

The way to avoid this – whatever you sponsor – is to put the effort in and get the focal point in the right place.

  • Immerse yourself in the culture before embarking on any leverage activities. That understanding will not only help you avoid missteps, but will be crucial to creating a powerful, effective, and efficient leverage strategy.
  • Know that attitude makes all the difference. If you’re not prepared to authentically position your brand as a genuine, passionate fan in all of your activities and communications around a sponsorship, you’ll never be accepted as part of the culture. Step one: Never again use the phrase, “Proud sponsor of”.
  • Sponsor the fans. Make them your focal point. Understand what they need, want, what you can amplify, what you can improve.

Do this, and the result will be a degree of alignment that no amount of inauthentic messaging, flashy stunts, or short-term product promotions will ever match.

The upshot

Bad esports sponsorships have had a lot of coverage, not least because of the spectacular and ignominious fan backlash against them. It would be easy for the rest of the industry to regard this as an anomaly, but we should instead be seeing it as the canary in the coal mine.

Pay attention. Pay attention and, and if you’re not on top of best practice sponsorship, you need to raise your game, and do it now. If you need somewhere to start, I suggest you download and read, “Disruptive Sponsorship: Like Disruptive Marketing, Only Better”.

Need more assistance?

For all you need to know about best practice sponsorship selection, leverage, measurement, management, and more, you may want to get a copy of The Corporate Sponsorship Toolkit.

If you need additional assistance with your sponsorship portfolio, I offer sponsorship consultingsponsorship training, and strategy sessions. Please drop me a line to discuss.

Kim Skildum-Reid
admin@powersponsorship.com
AU: +61 2 9559 6444
US: +1 612 326 5265

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