irAsia Allstars Esports Club

The AirAsia Allstars Esports Club at the World Electronic Sports Games (WESG) tournament. Image via AirAsia

Some call it the most desirable form of content, others a colossal waste of time. Whatever way you slice it, gaming spectatorship is growing faster than you can say GGWP (good game, well played).

I am not a gamer. Unless you call years of peering over my sister’s shoulder as she fiddled with her Nintendo 64 controller gaming. So when I found myself on a flight to Southern California for BlizzCon – an annual fan convention hosted by video game developer and publisher Blizzard Entertainment – I was feeling equal parts guarded and grossly unsuspecting.

The cabin was shared by a number of convention goers who surreptitiously identified each other by the time the aircraft was ready for takeoff. The rest of us sat unaware, until a series of spontaneous exchanges rippled across the cabin. In one, I recall two women no older than 40 pivoting around to ask three younger men sitting elbow to elbow in the row behind what they expected from the show. They mumbled something in gamer speak that I couldn’t make out, shared a laugh and became flight-long friends.

NOT WHO YOU THINK

Anyone who’s held a more than cursory conversation with a member of the gaming community will tell you that these aren’t the socially averse teenage boys glued to their PCs in their mother’s basement that we’ve come to expect. (Although the community is inclusive enough so as not to preclude these folk.)

For one, they are older than caricatures lead on, with the majority of esports and video game enthusiasts belonging to the millennial demographic. And they are far more successful. Forty-three percent of esports enthusiasts in the US, for example, have an annual household income of $75K or more, with one-third matching or surpassing the $90K mark, according to Mindshare North America. Its research also shows that the majority of these fans are happy to attend events like BlizzCon, which, in addition to boasting a price tag of a couple hundred, often require long-distance travel.

60% of esports fans are willing to travel to see their favorite games, tournaments and players. That number jumps to 67% for those with a household income of $50K to $99K, and to 72% for those earning $100K or more. Source: Mindshare North America

That eagerness to flock to events can be explained by another notable quality of game players and spectators: their propensity for community building – be they in airplanes, circuitous queues outside convention centers or chatting on Amazon-owned live-streaming platform Twitch. “Gaming has always been a social event,” says Solenne Lagrange, marketing director of Ginx Esports TV, a multilingual network offering a mix of esports news, reviews and gaming lifestyle content. “It might be different from what people expect from a traditional friendship, but whether you are a player or a viewer, it is all about the community.”

And it is thanks to that community that at-home gameplay has morphed into such massive productions, explains Kim Phan, director, Global Esports, Blizzard Entertainment. “Esports happened because players were so enthusiastic about the games that they started organizing competitive tournaments themselves,” she says. “It grew organically from a grassroots movement, which has its advantages and challenges.”

Among these challenges are the community’s resistance to commercialization through non-endemic brands, says Allan Phang, AirAsia’s head of Esports. “You can’t just place a brand logo and expect the community to embrace you. The only way is to add value to the community and show that you genuinely care about the space.” In fact, members of this community are among the most likely to employ ad blockers, helping to make this high-value demographic one of the hardest to reach.

Blizzcon

Image via BlizzCon

But thoughtful brand integrations and sponsorships can help non-endemic brands tap into the $1.65-billion economy esports is poised to become by 2021. This much was obvious at BlizzCon when the game publisher announced a partnership with Kellogg’s for a cereal based on one of its Overwatch characters. After getting my hands on a box of Lucio-Oh’s at the convention, I was stopped several times by attendees who offered me everything from posters to collectible pins in exchange.

ON THE UP AND UP

AirAsia entered the game, so to speak, in June 2017, when Phang corralled a group of 10 employees to form the AirAsia Esports Allstars Club. Today, the club comprises some 200 employees and is complemented by the sponsorship of a professional esports Dota 2 team, the acquisition of a Mobile Legends team, the backing of the Alibaba-founded World Electronic Sports Games (WESG) and, most recently, plans to erect Southeast Asia’s first esports hub in its name – an initiative backed by the Malaysian government.

Although Phang’s a self-described esports evangelist, this wasn’t always so, he admits. “I first heard about esports from our CEO, Tony Fernandes. Before then, I thought ‘Twitch’ was just something you did with your eye,” he says with a laugh. After doing some research and surveying his colleagues, many of whom had either never heard of esports or thought it was a “waste of time,” Phang invested $1,000 of his own money, bought 100 jerseys and encouraged senior and middle management to wear them every Thursday. “It became a kind of in-house viral marketing campaign, and it got the discussion going.”

Emirates esports

Emirates announced a content licensing deal with ESL in March 2017. Image via Emirates

Despite wide-ranging contributions to the space, AirAsia has yet to bring gaming-related content to passengers in flight. It was Gulf carrier Emirates that made headlines in 2017 as the first – and still the only – airline to announce a major esports in-flight entertainment (IFE) deal following content licensing agreements signed with Ginx and esports organizer and production company ESL.

“After attending content markets, we noticed the number of TV channel carriage deals and content sales that both ESL and Ginx were making, so we investigated further and saw the potential,” says Andy Grant, manager of Passenger Entertainment and Communications, Emirates. “By licensing content through these brands, we get that instant recognition from our millennial and Generation Z customers, and they get to trusted content quicker.”

Meanwhile, Panasonic Avionics launched a new gaming portfolio at APEX EXPO 2018, stating intentions to add live esports, lifestyle gaming content, connected games and personal electronic device solutions to its offering – an attempt “to address the hundreds of millions of fans engaged with this new media,” says Dominic Green, the company’s director of Media Services.

ESPN was likely after similar recognition from this demographic when, last July, it broadcast the Overwatch League playoffs, becoming the first network to air an esports competition during primetime. The move followed reports outlining the decline of linear TV and the growth in professional and amateur gaming viewership. Video game streaming has become so popular that its audiences on Twitch and YouTube have even surpassed those of HBO, Spotify, Netflix, Hulu and ESPN combined, reports SuperData Research. And so, while ESPN’s buy-in offers a long-awaited validation of video gaming as a spectator sport from mainstream media, it leads us to wonder whether it is a sign that esports has finally made it – or that TV is finally noticing it needs it.

A NEW PLAYER

Neil James, chief commercial officer of newly formed Signal Lamp Entertainment (SLE), a company specializing in bringing new content experiences to in-flight audiences, says the same could be said about the still-tenuous relationship between airlines and game entertainment publishers: There’s a chance the former stands to benefit even more than the latter. “The airlines weren’t aware of how valuable the gaming community could be or how much it aligned with their own demographic,” James says. “But the data speaks for itself, and now they’re turning to their CSPs [content service providers] and asking, ‘How did you miss this?’”

RELATED: Blizzard and Signal Lamp Forge Alliance to Bring Epic Content Experiences to the World of Aircraft

That gaming and esports content isn’t getting to passengers fast enough and not with the frequency or the quality that it can, is something SLE is working to address alongside Blizzard Entertainment. “Game publishers, like Blizzard, have great content and airlines have passengers who want it, but there’s been no clear or easy path to overcome our industry’s barriers and connect the two until now,” he says.

These obstacles, according to James, include an overly complex supply chain leading to protracted 90-day content cycles and the struggle to deliver monetization – SLE plans to take on both. Drawing on its parent company’s previous investments in content delivery for the medical field, it has developed Seven Seas, a cloud-based solution that purportedly moves content from origin to end user in minutes across mixed fleets, with auto encoding, real-time content selection and near-instantaneous uploads. With the addition of its agnostic ad-serving solution Ad Republic, SLE claims packaging that content with advertising, brand sponsorships and other e-commerce opportunities will be seamless, thereby addressing the second impediment.

James envisages airlines using the technology to provide immersive experiences that give way to multiple entry points: cinematic shorts, live streams of esports events and gaming conventions, pro-gamer and developer profiles, educational content, gameplay and more. “The holistic element is so important because not everyone’s a hardcore gamer. Some people need to be eased into it,” he says.

CAN’T LOOK AWAY

Ginx’s Lagrange agrees, telling me that even traditional sports fandom required a period of gestation before becoming what it is today: “In fact, during the first soccer game in the UK, people left mid game. We have to learn how to enjoy esports in the same way.” This is where Ginx’s human interest and docuseries esports content, some of which is available to Emirates, comes in, Lagrange says. “The human connection can make this happen.”

After all, it was this access to the person behind the gamer that helped propel someone like spiky-haired Tyler Blevins, aka Ninja, into superstardom. The multimillionaire rose to fame playing the wildly popular third-person shooter game Fortnite for 12 hours a day – and live streaming it all on Twitch while interacting with fans. In April 2018, he got more engagement on social media than any other athlete on the planet, outranking Cristiano Ronaldo and Shaquille O’Neal.

“Media is going through a revolution with the emergence of platforms that support user-created content.” – Dominic Green, Panasonic

Fortnite’s broad appeal owes in part to its availability on almost any device, including PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PS4 and mobile. But passengers won’t be playing the game in flight anytime soon due to limitations in Wi-Fi speed, bandwidth and, according to Emirates’ Grant, the closed software environment created by IFE hardware vendors. “There is virtually no opportunity to rapidly introduce social gaming to IFE, as the whole process is so slow. This is a great shame and means that by the time Fortnite is available on an IFE system (if ever), it will have been superseded by newer, cooler games.”

But airlines shouldn’t overlook the shift in media consumption that the success of Fortnite streams like Blevins’ signal. “Media is going through a revolution with the emergence of platforms that support user-created content, and with it, the appetites for both traditional and new media are becoming more intertwined than ever before,” Panasonic’s Green says. And, with the rise of user-generated content, also now intertwined are the boundaries between fan, player, spectator and creator – all drawn into a shared social experience happening way beyond the confines of a basement.

“The State of Play” was originally published in the 9.1 February/March issue of APEX Experience magazine.

Valerie is deputy editor at APEX Media.