Humanity, Breadth & Institutional Sponsorship: Mike Murphy O'Reilly on the Evolving Brand Opportunities in Esports

For all its snowballing success, esports arguably has a perception problem.

Say 'esports' to those both inside and beyond the worlds of games, brands, and marketing, and they will perhaps imagine something like a vast arena with sweeping spotlights passing over 20,000 cheering fans, as pro players in heavily branded athletics jerseys do battle in a game like League of Legends. Perhaps a commentator will be unleashing flurries of jargon as a team manager nervously paces back and forth near the stage.

That, of course, is the most famed manifestation of what esports can be. But it doesn't represent anything like the entire scope of what esports is, or the branding opportunities available within that breadth.

Consider other entities that can exist as entertainment. The culture and ecosystem of golf does not represent everything that all sports can be. Music includes opera and garage punk, but the two are entirely culturally distinct. Now competitive gaming, says Mike Murphy O'Reilly, director of esports at Minute Media, is becoming comparably broad. And brands must begin to think of the esports opportunity in that way.

Millions of people certainly follow esports, presenting a vast audience to brands, advertisers, and marketing specialists. That opportunity, however, is best seized in meaningful way by considering the aforementioned breadth of esports.

Minute Media owns DBLTAP, an esports content platform that is devoting its spotlight to the players and culture of esports as much – if not more than – the statistics and results that typically enjoy editorial focus. Murphy O'Reilly also stands as global head of esports at DBLTAP, and his experience has taught him that understanding the full scope of esports should be the first step for brands keen to get involved.

"How brands speak to esports fans is probably one of the most important things to get right", Murphy O'Reilly offers. "What Riot, ourselves, and a lot of different rights holders and people in the esports industry do a good job of is firstly helping brands understand how they do that. And the first thing is that it's not how you speak to esports fans; it's how you speak to League of Legends fans, because that will be what you're sponsoring."

DBLTAP has made its focus the players and cultures of esports, as well as results and standings.

As Murphy O'Reilly has observed, esports communities typically gravitate around a single game, perhaps giving a little time to one or two associated titles. And the culture around each game can be significantly distinct. League of Legends and Fortnite esports fans might be as distinct as the audiences that devote time to rally and curling. Esports branding, advertising, and marketing success, then, is about knowing your esport; not your esports.

The breadth of types of esport on offer also means that there's plenty of capacity for a wide spread of brands to associate themselves with competitive gaming. Just because names like Mastercard are backing the biggest tournaments doesn't mean you need the clout of a multinational finance giant to claim a stake for your brand in esports.

"No one looks at a local electrician firm sponsoring their Sunday league team and says 'that's not sport'," suggests Murphy O'Reilly. "It's just not talked about as much, and that's true in esports. Particularly when people refer to esports, it's the big 15,000-20,000 people in a stadium stuff. And that's great. But there's more opportunities across the breadth or what esports includes."

At this point, it's worth going back to DBLTAP's focus on the players that makes esports what it is. Because there too, says Murphy O'Reilly, there is a significant and untapped branding opportunity.

In reality, devoted esports followers may know plenty about their favourite teams, but very few esports professionals have become household names as seen in traditional sports. And it is the human stories, Murphy O'Reilly believes, that present a huge opportunity for those looking to align their brands with the esports phenomenon.

It's a relatively straightforward logic. Putting a human face on esports attracts human interest. Pick any well-known sporting figure – let's say tennis star Andy Murray. Most interviews with him are about him as a person; not deep dives into the high-level strategy of tennis. Most people are interested in finding out more about Andy Murray. That is why he is sponsored, and why coverage is given in mainstream press. The humans in sport are what attracts so much attention to sports. And therein lies the branding, advertising, and marketing opportunity, as well as a means through which esports itself can grow.

Presently, companies and brand holders are eagerly and reasonably sponsoring tournaments, events, teams, and streamed content. But if they could sponsor the individuals who play esports, there may well be more eyes drawn to those brands. Of course, that does mean esports organisations and teams must do more to present their players not just as professional gamers, but also as humans.

That's the kind of thinking that motivated DBLTAP to work with League of Legends European championship sponsor and automotive manufacturer Kia to deliver the 'Time to Talk' initiative, which saw a spotlight cast on the relationship between esports professionals and their families. As with the aforementioned hypothetical Andy Murray interviews, here the focus was not on the infinitesimal detail of esports gameplay strategies, but instead casts a light over the human stories behind a career that might see youngsters spend months away from home.

In the Time to Talk video below, for example, you can see Rekkles of the hugely popular team Fnatic talk with his father about the family's role in his League of Legends success. It's a conversation they have while driving a Kia, of course.

Focusing on players as people should also deliver dual gains. Projecting the human interest angle will surely help push esports further into the collective consciousness of mainstream culture. It will also speak more authentically to existing esports fans, who may thus be more inclined to connect with a given brand.

And if your brand or client wants to harness this opportunity, Murphy O'Reilly has some simple advice.

"When you're doing this on the human side of esports – or the fun side, or whatever it is – it is really about giving value to the fans and community. That's ultimately what you should be trying to achieve, and that's where you'll see success."

We've seen, then, that esports and the opportunities it provides brands can grow together, in a symbiotic state. That's something that we can also see highlighted by the rise of 'institutional sponsorship'.

"You're actually seeing a lot more brands now becoming institutional sponsors. So, it's not so much about 'let me go put my logo on your team shirt', and more 'let's do this together. Let me build your training facility'. If you look at [gaming PC outfit] Alienware and Team Liquid, they've built their training facility so the team can continue to grow and have a future. I think there's now a lot more infrastructure and investment that means esports is here and is growing."

Institutional sponsorship might offer the perfect storm where esports as a brand opportunity is concerned. It speaks to specific esports communities precisely and authentically, helps grow the very entity that provides brands with access to such a large audience, and supports the very humans that might be the key to more enticing exposure.

Clearly, there is plenty of scope for esports to grow. As for the brands that align themselves with esports? If they get it right, and recognise the nuance of esports as a diverse field, there's every chance they'll see a great deal of growth too.