ESports & Digital Sport, Formula One, Motorsport, Global

McLaren Shadow Project: Why esports is fast becoming a viable route for marketing success

Wing’s Will Ingham explains why esports is the latest arena where brands should be battling for customers’ attention.

by Guest Contributor
McLaren Shadow Project: Why esports is fast becoming a viable route for marketing success

Six billion hours. That’s the total amount of time players had spent in front of their screens, engaged in esports, according to the 2017 IHS Markit report – a rise of 19 per cent across 2016. That figure is expected to rise year-on-year to 2021 when analysts predict it will reach nine billion hours.

That’s just the players. Esports is a spectator event too, with global audiences predicted to reach 389 million in 2018, generating revenues up to US$1.48bn by 2020.

For the most part esports has grown organically, but it’s starting to go mainstream. One tournament, Overwatch League (OWL), has secured a two-year broadcast sponsorship for more than UK£60m from Amazon’s Twitch streaming service. And now even the big names from more traditional sporting organisations are starting to take note.

While branding has always been a key part of the traditional sports universe, marketing investment is increasingly providing the access that fans really value

Our client and Formula One team McLaren is pioneering the growing phenomenon, having launched the next phase in its esports programme - the Shadow Project - earlier this year. Winners of their virtual ‘Champion of Champions’ competition will earn a seat in the all-new McLaren Shadow esports team in addition to being enrolled into their esports development programme. You only have to Google last year’s winner Rudy van Buren to witness some of the enviable money-can’t-buy experiences on offer that merges gaming with real-world racing. 

And it’s been a remarkable venture for the company; one we are proud to be a part of. Speaking about their success in the gaming world, group marketing director of McLaren Henry Chilcott said: “The Shadow Project is the most open and inclusive racing esports competition on the planet. It’s bringing a totally new demographic into the world of motorsport in general as well as giving McLaren access to a previously untouched pool of talent with skills we’ve now proven are transferable to real-world racing.

“This opens up extraordinary opportunities for the future from a racing perspective and, from a sports marketing standpoint, shows our commitment to continually seek new platforms to engage new audiences for our brand and partners.”

While the competition aims to emulate real-world racing conditions in-game, many of the opportunities in real-world racing are also available to esports participants, particularly brands.

From tournament headline sponsorship and badged livery to exclusive curated content, marketers should be looking to use esports as a route to address the notoriously selective gamer market. Brands have struggled somewhat over how to get more involved in the gaming universe. Until recently, this has been limited to clunky product placement; there are plenty of user-generated ‘listicles’ on this topic, alone.

Tyler 'Ninja' Blevins has managed to forge a career through esports and exploiting marketing opportunities

The opportunities are opening as esports becomes a true participant and spectator sport. Brands see huge value in sponsoring the YouTube channels of pro-gamers for example, a more authentic route to this demographic than other influencer strategies on the platform. Fortnite gamer, ‘Ninja’ partners with Uber Eats to literally feed him as he plays but also rewards his viewers with promo codes and rewards.

But while branding has always been a key part of the traditional sports universe, marketing investment is increasingly providing the access that fans really value. Access in terms of insight into favourite players’ down-time, or a look behind-the-scenes, would be a hugely popular addition to the main event and one that brand sponsorship secures.

Don’t be fooled that the handycam, rough-and-ready style that makes the YouTuber set so popular will wash here, though. For the most part, sport – especially motorsport – is a high-octane, high-quality production. Consumers want exclusive access and high production values. Film must be slick, engaging and covetable. Gamers may be behind their screens for the esports action but that shouldn’t limit the imagination of brands looking to capitalise on the energy.

The brand opportunity comes in film of Lewis Hamilton training, travelling through Monaco or partying with other industry bods. The driver’s own channel featuring the motivational #whatsyourdrive films garnered 40,000 subscribers in a little over two months, showing marketers that can facilitate this kind of access for their customers have an unparalleled opportunity to connect.

The esports worldwide gaming tournaments may be a relatively new opportunity for marketers, but thanks to the sophistication of the traditional sports marketing models, they have the blueprint to rapidly match that success.