Gaming is not esports.

In this article

  1. Esports is not sports
  2. Esport has its place 
  3. A football fan isn’t necessarily a tennis fan. An F1 fan isn’t necessarily a NASCAR fan.
  4. Gamification is only a small part of gaming culture 
  5. Sports simulators are capped, just ask motorsport
  6. So, what should sports be learning from Gaming?

Gaming Culture comprises two intersecting ecosystems akin to traditional sports: Esports, which is the professional competitive ecosystem, and Gaming, the participatory ecosystem. Many in the sports industry have failed to distinguish between these two ecosystems, leading them to overlook the more valuable participatory ecosystem of Gaming. By recognizing and understanding the dynamics of the Gaming ecosystem, valuable insights can be gained for the sports industry.

Esports is not sports

Vast amounts of money and resources have been pumped into esports by sports stakeholders with limited success. Aims of audience expansion, content creation and financial return have often not been met and in some cases have been catastrophically missed. 

Often, sports stakeholders have tried to integrate the same strategies used in the sports industry into their esports projects. As such, the esports commercial model reflects that of professional sports. This is a building-your-house-on-sand scale problem because the sports industry’s commercial model is fundamentally flawed. At the top, growth is reliant on overvalued media rights. And at the bottom, its survival relies on trickle-down revenue and public funding. Esports cannot rely on these revenue streams; esports fans won’t pay to view, the viewing figures aren’t big enough to support an advertising model, and public bodies rarely choose to subsidise esports development.

Esport has its place 

The objectives for esports projects are usually to expand the traditional sports fan base and deepen fandom with existing fans. In particular, esports projects are used to drive engagement with younger audiences. You can see why, when global viewership of esports has risen from 202 million to 640 million in the past five years, with a market size now of over $2.39 billion. However, these figures are misleading and have led stakeholders to treat esports projects as independent profit centres. Very few of these esports projects have been or will ever be profitable.

Esports has its place. That place is part of marketing or experiential engagement, not least when engaging younger audiences. Its place is not with its own financial bottom line. 

Example: Esports as a marketing tactic – $1 billion and 150 million views in 10 days

We helped Activision Blizzard launch the two most recent Call of Duty games with an esports tournament (COD Next). As part of the campaign, we brought together 200 of the top COD streamers, influencers and creators in one venue and gave them exclusive early access to play the new game. They streamed directly to their fans (for free) whilst competing in the COD tournament. There was no media rights deal. There was no broadcast channel involved. We did stream directly to the COD Twitch and YouTube channels, but the primary distribution was through the individual streamers’ channels.  

  • The live viewership of the event was over 6 million. 
  • The views across all content exceeded 150 million.
  • The average watch time for the live show was nearly two hours.
  • The result was millions of pre-orders for the new game. 

And the big $$ number – The launch of Call of Duty in 2022 produced $1 billion in its first 10 days. $1 billion in 10 days directly from consumers! Esports has its place. 

INSERT COD NEXT VIDEO.

A football fan isn’t necessarily a tennis fan. An F1 fan isn’t necessarily a NASCAR fan.

Recently, we were approached by a brand that has a significant global sports sponsorship portfolio. Their ask; “we’d like to sponsor esports”. Much of the discussion then involved breaking down the esports ecosystem. 

Just because someone plays or is a fan of FPS (First-person shooters), doesn’t mean they play or are a fan of TCG (Trading Card games). Just because someone plays or is a fan of Call of Duty (a FPS), doesn’t mean they play or are a fan of Counter-Strike (also a FPS). And just because someone plays Call of Duty, doesn’t mean they’re a fan of the Call of Duty esports League. 

Much like sports, fandom and participation in gaming culture is not universal. Below are a few examples of genres, games and their corresponding esports. There is an additional consideration in gaming – whether that game is available on the platform you use – e.g. Console (PS5, Xbox etc), PC, or Mobile. 

GenreGamesEsports Leagues
FPS (First person shooter)Call of Duty (COD) Counter-Strike (CS) COD NextCS GO
TCG (Trading Card Game)PokemonYugiohPokemon ChampionshipsYugioh World Championships
SportsEA FCNBA 2KeMLSNBA 2K League
Battle RoyaleFortniteDOTAFNCSDOTA 2 League
PuzzleAngry BirdsTetrisAngry Birds ChampsCTWC

*there are overlaps and differing definitions – e.g. arguably Call of Duty is both an FPS and a Battle Royale depending on the game mode.

There are dozens of genres. One of the most interesting has grown well beyond being a genre to become platforms themselves; Sandbox. Two of the most notable Sandbox platforms are Minecraft and Roblox. Known for world-building and creation, almost any other gaming genre can be created in isolated games and activations within those platforms.  

Gamification is only a small part of gaming culture 

More recently, sports stakeholders have been turning to gamification or “gamifying the fan experience”. This can range from fantasy sports and betting to novel fan activations. Similarly to poorly performing esports projects, many sports stakeholders have implemented gamification strategies and failed to meet the fan engagement and monetisation results they hoped for. The lack of success of many of these gamification strategies is caused by not ensuring the integration of the most important components of gaming culture (we’ll come to these later).

Sports simulators are capped, just ask motorsport

Sports stakeholders are also turning to sports simulation. The most successful platforms so far are often when the simulation aligns with personal fitness, such as Zwift or Peloton. 

With lesser success, many top-tier motorsports properties have launched SIM racing as part of their esports and gaming strategies. And that’s where they’ve stopped. SIM racing misses the biggest opportunities for integrating gaming into motorsport. SIM racing has huge barriers to entry – it’s expensive, requires specific hardware and has huge drop-off rates because of its difficulty to learn. Gaming hubs at a Grand Prix are a great addition to the fan experience, but limiting them to SIM racing is why they’re not attracting the volume or demography of new fans motorsport wants to. If those gaming hubs featured Fortnite, Rocket League and Minecraft then they would get the attention of a much bigger and much younger audience. Not only as individuals but as family units.

So, what should sports be learning from Gaming?

Whether on a gaming console, PC, mobile or a physical board, gaming is what over 5 billion people do on at least a weekly basis. They play, they participate, they interact. The commercial model is contrastingly different to sports and esports – the revenue primarily comes directly from the consumer (video games alone generated over $200 billion in 2023).

Each week, this series will explore gaming culture insights into engagement, monetisation, authenticity, and purpose. Each article will break down key components that make the gaming ecosystem so effective and how the sports industry can use them:

  • Reward, recognition, seasonality & scarcity
  • Identity and community
  • Interaction and participation
  • Sponsorship integration and authenticity
  • The creator economy

Up first, we’ll be looking at Reward, recognition, seasonality & scarcity – that article will be published soon.