The latest piece in our Level Up Licensing series – digging into the people and projects leading the charge in gaming and esports licensing – comes from Lee Townsend, MD of The Koyo Store. A veteran gamer and follower of the esports scene, here he shares a unique perspective on the “tipping point” of something big that will impact the licensing industry for years to come
I can’t remember a time when esports has been more front of mind in the news media and among the general public.
The recent Fortnite World Cup has captured imaginations, among both aspiring gamers and the world of business - I feel we’re at a kind of tipping point.
Which is a strange thing to say about an industry that’s been around for over 10 years in its current recognisable form and generated revenue of £900m in 2018 – a figure that’s expected to top $1bn this year, according to highly-respected Newzoo research.
The tipping point here is more to do with the relationship the esports community has with its strategic partners - brands both large and small – and, in turn, its fans.
As a gamer for 25 years it’s that word ‘community’ that has particularly struck me about the world of esports – and it’s something that events, teams, leagues and partner brands need to embrace if they want to fully realise the undoubted potential of the sector.
We noticed early on that very few people leave an esports event with something that says: ‘I was there’. That applies to everyone, from the fan in the stands to the coach of a winning team. There was no equivalent of the matchday programme or ‘half and half’ scarves you can buy at a football game.
Sure, t-shirts, caps and hoodies are everywhere, and you do need to have them, but there’s nothing that’s limited edition or collectible. esports merchandise is typically what I would call ‘same, same, but different’ – it’s all standard stuff and it’s only ever sold and worn at the event.
This realisation led to our own idea, which is to offer esports event organisers a service that produces collectible Challenge Coin Medals and Pin badges for the players – it’s a kind of sponsorship. And, if we produce gold badges for the teams and VIPs, but also make a generic version available for fans attending the tournament, then everyone gets to share in the occasion and prestige.
In terms of monetary value, our offering is miniscule in the grand scheme of things, but it has huge value in terms of creating a sense of belonging and increasing event brand awareness, bonding the fans to the event.
And that’s how brands looking to get into esports today need to think. It’s simple really – you have dedicated fans paying upwards of £100 to attend an event for the weekend, so let’s start treating them like valued members of a community, with quality products at the right price.
If you take a Metallica concert as an example, everyone attending expects to spend money. It’s the same opportunity in esports, but the assumption too often made is that if a kid has £20 in his or her pocket we’re entitled to take it from them.
That’s the wrong way around. Instead, let’s make something different that’s high-quality and see if we can entice fans and the public to engage with the event, teams and players on a deeper level – I can promise you they want to.
The recent ESL One event in Cologne highlights the size of the opportunity if brands get it right. I saw a 500-metre queue of people waiting to get into a signing by the Ninjas In Pyjamas (NIP) team. Obviously, those people were fans of NIP, but they are also just esports fans – it’s important to realise that ‘esports’ is a brand in its own right.
So, who’s doing it right? I take my hat off to Pringles, who partnered with ESL and produced a one-off tube design of their eponymous salty snack that was branded ESL One Cologne. It was great brand awareness combined with consumer engagement – it’s also a hugely positive sign of what’s possible with a bit of thought.
In addition, the likes of Mercedes are now turning up at esports events in the same way they do at international professional golf tournaments – that’s because they want the top teams and multimillionaire players to be seen using their products.
This kind of positive engagement needs to go from us at Koyo at the very modest end of the spectrum, to international blue-chip brands at the very top: everyone needs to think about longevity and engagement.
The bigger teams all want to become the Real Madrids of esports, and the top players want to be the Cristiano Ronaldos. Some are nearly there. So, as licensees and brands, let’s work closely with them so they can offer their own, bespoke, event merchandise.
And consider this: Why do fans like a particular team? We know that in football, rugby or cricket it is largely geographic, but esports is online and global. Therefore, it is safe to assume that a large part must be down to the team, the players and their fan engagement, which is why there’s an opportunity with quality merch.
Achieving that goal requires engagement on the business side too – esports is a virtual world, so arranging meetings in the real world is crucial to securing partnerships. Any newcomer will need to put in the legwork and airmiles to engage with potential partners – and at Koyo we also make a point of talking to fans at tournaments to see what they want too.
The best conversations happen in communities. Let’s start something interesting.
Top image: ESL One 2019, Cologne