AUSTIN: Here’s why e-sports might be something brands want to get into: On Wednesday night (March 14), hip-hop superstar Drake, he of the nearly 37 million Twitter followers (@Drizzy), joined up with super-gamer Ninja for a casual game of Epic Games’ Fortnite: Battle Royale on Twitch.
Drake tweeted out simply:
— Drizzy @Drizzy) March 15, 2018
and hundreds of thousands of people caught on, with almost 130,000 retweets and nearly 300,000 likes.
Drake and Ninja played a few games together and then Pittsburgh Steelers’ star rookie and gamer Juju Smith-Schuster and rapper Travis Scott joined up for an all-star match.
In the end, some 630,000 concurrent viewers tuned into the stream, breaking the all-time record of 388,000 viewers, previously set by Twitch streamer Dr. DisRespect but closely followed by League of Legends’ player Tyler1.
It’s that kind of collusion of sports, media and online that brands are hoping to tap into, and moreover, sports teams are starting to turn to as they look to expand their franchises and reach younger audiences.
At a panel at SXSW Gaming in Austin on Thursday, e-sports executives discussed how traditional sports – and particularly the NBA with NBA 2K – are forming e-sports teams and working with brands to promote leagues, teams and individual athletes.
“The NBA is the first professional sports league to jump into e-sports and run their own league. We’re really pioneers,” said Cody Parrent, director of e-sports operations for the Indiana Pacers.
The NBA is just launching its NBA 2K league, in which gamers play NBA 2K. The league just held its draft lottery and later this spring will hold an official draft event at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Currently, 17 of 30 NBA teams have e-teams that they are building, including the Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks, besides the Pacers.
The teams will pick from a draft pool of 102 players with six players per team. Players can come from anywhere in the world and be male or female, with the age range of players between 18 and 32. Draftees will then be treated like professional athletes themselves, with resources dedicated to their training, fitness and diet, and base salaries of $35,000 per six months for round one picks and $32,000 for six months for players in rounds two through six.
Traditional sports leagues are investing in e-sports because it’s where many of those elusive younger viewers—many of whom are cord-cutters—hang out.
“Millions of people watch these events from home but also sell out Madison Square Garden and the Staples Center—you really can’t deny that,” said Heather Garozzo, director of fan engagement, Team Dignitas, which works in concert with the Philadelphia 76ers. Garozzo is a champion gamer herself. “Viewership now from some of these major events are surpassing the NFL and NBA finals. It certainly makes sense to dive into that audience. It’s a great way to engage a younger fan base who are used to being always connected.”
Getting brands involved isn’t as simple as just buying a 30-second spot, however.
“Viewers can tell very quickly if you are just throwing ads at them,” said Parrent. “It doesn’t work in e-sports, you have to be very creative and come up with ideas. The younger generation is not used to commercials – it turns them off immediately.”
One example of brands working with e-sports teams is the 76ers’ partnership with Buffalo Wild Wings, which is already a huge supporter of professional sports.
“The Sixers were able to get Buffalo Wild Wings as a sponsor, so we’re doing livestreams from Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants and holding fan meet-ups there,” said Garozzo. “That’s a great way for [brands who aren’t native to e-sports] to trust what we are doing.”
To help would-be fans get to know their players, Pacers Gaming plans to hire a director of content who will create behind-the-scenes videos with the team’s players, showing how the best in the world prepare to play. Everything about the e-sports space is about authentically fitting in with the environment, which is already fairly chaotic.
READ MORE: The Verge