A few weeks ago I was invited to watch a game at Sportsbar in Rogers Arena in Vancouver. It was the inaugural matchup for Vancouver’s newest pro sports team, and tickets to get in were in high demand. In fact, as I walked up to the bar in the middle of that Saturday afternoon, I was greeted by a lineup of fans that snaked around the lobby and well outside the building, nearly every one of them wearing the team’s signature lime green and blue.

The team? The Vancouver Titans of the brand new Overwatch League.

Yep, I was in a bar in the middle of the afternoon to watch people play video games on TV.

What struck me immediately was how much the fans had already embraced their new home team. The energy was electric, everyone was wearing team merch and there was a mix of excitement and anxiety in the room as the Titans got set to take the stage for their first ever game in this new league.

As the games progressed, the energy only intensified – big kills were met with eruptions from the crowd that I can only compare to a Canucks playoff game (remember those?) and when Vancouver came out on top, beating their opponents 4-0, there was a sense of pride in the room; their favourite pastime had entered a significant new chapter.

So what, right? A few kids get together to watch each other play video games and we call it a sport, why does that matter?

It matters because it is the fastest growing form of entertainment, generating nearly half a Billion viewers this year around the world. Yes, the cradle of esports is concentrated in parts of Korea and China, but it has exploded around the globe to the point that nearly half of viewers are now outside of the Asia Pacific region, and over 68 million of them are in North America.

To put that into context: According to CBS, this year’s Super Bowl attracted 103.4 million viewers. The total amount that advertisers spent to inject their messages into the Big Game? $482 Million, according to CNBC.

This is the beauty of the free market. Products and services become wildly popular, which allows them to command a premium because of their popularity, which opens a gap in the marketplace for someone else to come along and offer a competitive product or service. In this case, that’s the attention and positive association that comes along with sporting events. Already, esports has started to pick up some market share. This year they’ll see $189 million in ad revenue and over $1 billion in total cash, but the numbers aren’t apples-to-apples when we hold them up against the Super Bowl. In one case we’re looking at a single game on a single day in just one league featuring two teams. In the other we’re expanding our scope to include an entire category of gaming across the entire world on a variety of platforms. The upside potential for esports is bananas, and brands are just starting to dip their toes in it.

One thing that struck me when I was watching the Titans destroy their competition on day 1 was how familiar the advertising was. We had huge names like HP and Toyota running interruptive ads, and Monster Energy with product placement. That tells us pretty clearly that the big guys are paying attention, and it also means that there’s a massive opportunity to look at the space with fresh eyes.

While esports does follow a lot of the same traditions as classic sports (team jerseys, period breaks, announcers) that each present opportunities for brands, there’s a whole new set of freedoms that have never existed before. The course, for example, is entirely virtual which means that not only could it be designed or modified for each match, it could be modified for each viewer based on their preferences. The thing that won’t change is the fundamental principle of value creation. When a brand finds a concentration of attention and wants to use those eyeballs to its advantage, the only way to do that effectively and sustainably is by making the experience better than it would have been before. When we jam logos in front of people’s faces without that value creation, the net effect is either apathy (waste of money) or negativity (worse).

Brand advertising, when done well, opens up a ton of amazing possibilities. In sports, it has funded advanced tech like the instant replay and the teleprompter. At live events, brands create over-the-top experiences that no event organizer could have pulled off alone. Even in elevators and taxis, by matching brands with a captive audience we get the news, weather, and a bit of entertainment in exchange for our attention.

So how does value creation apply to esports? A smart brand would start out by getting to know the specific audience that they’re looking to benefit, identifying them first by the game that they play, and then by the communities that they belong to, then asking them: How can we make what you love even better?

At risk of over-generalizing, I’m going to offer the 3 key opportunities that jump out at me for brands right now in esports.

  1. Player support

  2. This thing is so new, that the vast majority of players make little-to-no money doing what they love, so even a little bit of support from a brand can go along way if the relationship makes sense. Think of the amount of time and money that’s spent right now trying to find the next great golf/hockey/tennis/basketball player to partner with so that when she makes her meteoric rise to the top, our logo is right there with her. Traditional sports are a cluttered marketplace, esports are a wide open ocean teeming with opportunity.

  3. Offline fan support

  4. Viewing parties like the one that I went to are popping up everywhere. The fan communities that were once confined to online hubs are seeking out IRL opportunities to show their support and experience this phenomenon together. There are few legitimate ways for fans to do that, so brands looking to endear themselves to the community can apply GaryVee’s High School Rule here and get in with the cool kids by becoming the party host (either literally or figuratively).

  5. Realtime social content

  6. I’m hesitating even as I’m writing this one, because I’m imagining some of the cringe-y content that lazy brands are going to create to win the attention of the esports crowd.

    However, as we’ve seen in nearly every other realtime event, brands that invest real time and attention can create awesome realtime content that legitimately adds value to the fan experience either by injecting humour, telling stories, or even (as in the case of March Madness) creating games and contests that fans can engage with while they’re not watching the big screen.

    After the final shot was fired in the Titan’s huge 4-0 kickoff win, the team’s most popular player, known as Bumper, set the tone for the rest of the season. In an interview streamed to millions of viewers he predicted that not only would Vancouver continue to compete at the highest level, but that they would run the table, sweeping every team in the league by the same 4-0 margin. He’s since become one of the most infamous players in the world for his massive confidence and disregard for basically any other team in the league.

    What’s happening right now in esports is no different than the initial adoption of social media, video on the internet, music streaming, and podcasting: Most people say that it’s crazy, a lot of them make jokes about it, and there is massive opportunity for brands who are curious, get in early, and add value.