In September of 2018, Roman Kushnarev became the newest face of Head & Shoulders in Russia. Known more popularly by his gamer-tag, RAMZES666, nothing about his slight frame and flagrantly offensive name screams “brand ambassador”. But this DOTA 2 superstar, regarded by many as his country’s best player, is adored by legions (read: millions) of Russian males. Over the past few years, the presence of big brands in gaming has been growing, but what makes this one particularly important is the unspectacular nature of the ad itself. Here we have a well-known shampoo brand starring an esports (electronic sports) athlete in a refreshingly familiar format: a 20 second spot, complete with ‘creative visualization’, and a cringey finger-comb shot. It’s a far cry from the usual team sponsorship, logo-on-a-jacket, and naming rights deals. While it doesn’t seem like much, this was a sign of a big shift in how brands see gamers as no longer a niche audience, but a massive core market.

Studies estimated that 42% of Americans regularly played video games in 2017. In the same year, 33% of Filipinos were gamers, spending about $354,000,000 in total on their hobby. As mobile games continue to gain popularity, these numbers will rise.  

Globally, the progress of competitive gaming over the past few years has been astounding. DOTA 2, Overwatch, and League of Legends raised the bar and provided sustainable templates for professional esports competitions. They took a few pages from the playbook written by traditional sports and built on it through in-game purchases, and capitalized on the popularity surge of streaming, freeing themselves from the shackles of expensive broadcasting deals to deliver a tailor-made experience for their fans. They worked closely with content creators, online communities, and the gamer-centric live stream platform, Twitch, to meet the insatiable demand for esports content. For perspective, a staggering 46 million viewers on average tuned in to Twitch for the League of Legends 2018 World Championship, while a total of 61 million spectators watched DOTA 2’s The International 2018 on the same platform.

When it comes to esports, the Philippines is definitely up there. Just three weeks ago, TNC Predator, the most successful Filipino esports team, won their second DOTA 2 World esports Games (WESG) title, beating China’s Keen Gaming to raise their total tournament earnings from competitions to $3,000,000 in just three years. In late February, 18 year old Alexandre “AK” Laverez bagged second place and $250,000 at the Tekken Evolution Championship Series: Japan. These esports athletes proved that given the right infrastructure and support, Filipinos can truly be world class gamers.

All this attention and success opens incredible opportunities not just for the players, but for brands who want to get it on the action. Unfortunately, local marketers have been too slow or out of the loop entirely. And before brands can even think of advertising in this space, they need a comprehensive understanding of the gaming industry and the gamer community which does sound tedious – but necessary.

Last week, the Internet and Mobile Marketing Association of the Philippines (IMMAP), together with The Culture Group, invited Nimish Raut from Riot Games (publisher of League of Legends), Julian Jackson (Mineski), Rai Cockfield (Bitrep.me and formerly Twitch.tv), Angelica Frances Neri and Jake San Diego (both from Globe) to discuss gaming and esports in front of large IMMAP-member audience. But to put a whole industry into context and advise marketers on what to do in just half an hour is a tough ask.

Nevertheless, two key points were raised from the quick panel session:

The rapid growth of the esports industry is opening new opportunities.

Esports will keep growing in popularity and profitability. This gives brands the chance to create a space for themselves in this yet unclaimed territory. It’s just a question of who’s quick enough to calls dibs first.

Respect the game and the gamer.

“You may not break that trust. You don’t get to control it.” – Rai Cockfield, CEO Bitrep.me, ex-Twitch APAC Director

Appealing to gamers is an exercise in respect and authenticity. As gaming goes mainstream, hardcore players and loyal publishers will keep it closely guarded from intrusive (read: epal) commercial influences. Hence, the ecosystem is not as sanitized as traditional sports, but therein lies its cultish appeal. This would understandably make any conservative marketer queasy. But even if it requires a bit more thought and carries a certain amount of risk, the numbers prove that there is much more to be gained.

Marketers cannot ignore esports and its untapped potential, especially locally. Millions of Filipinos are avid gamers but there is a definite lack of big brand presence and support for the domestic gaming scene. Hands up to the telcos and ISP’s who were there from day one. But to keep at pace with the rest of the world, more brands have to loosen up and just play.

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