PlusHeart Issue #1 - Branding Under Fire
C: "As usual, this is a one-man infiltration mission." S: "Weapons and equipment OSP (on-site procurement)?" C: "Yes. This is a top-secret black op. Don't expect any official support."
It's championship season, baby.
Right now two major world championships are going on, both for League of Legends and Dota 2. As someone who's spent a ton of time in the Dota community, I tend to watch The International (the Dota championship) every year; I haven't watched the League equivalent since roughly 2015.
When it comes to this kind of event access, there's a huge opportunity not only to win matches, but also connect with your community; I find that brands who are able to do both tend to be the real "winners" of the event even if they don't take home first place.
However, it's a bit of an ask for the teams involved, especially for the smaller ones that may not be well-funded for equipment, talent, or editing skills. I've definitely seen teams completely leave the community side out of the biggest event of their years, and in The International's case, it's for a pretty legitimate reason: doing well at TI means potentially funding your whole next year of activity because of the community-inflated prize pool.
The problem with this is that it puts a ton of pressure on the players to perform, and not just within the context of the tournament: if they do well, they also connect with a new audience through their play, and that makes new fans for the coming season.
If that's your only way of making new fans, though, it contributes to the instability that plagues Dota at an industry level: because teams aren't consistent, fanbases don't develop — when fanbases don't develop, sponsorships become harder to find. When players have a hard time supporting themselves, the gap between teams that have resources and don't widens, and that leads to a degradation of competitive culture.
While we'd loath to admit it, esports is still an entertainment business, and the action of putting eyeballs towards things that people want to sell is what keeps it afloat.
Adapt or die
I find that the teams that handle this the best (and the ones that become unexpected fan-favorites) are the ones who manage to make do with what they have.
One of my favorite concepts is something from Gunpei Yokoi (the creator of the Nintendo Game Boy and Game and Watch); Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology1 refers to taking readily-available and cheaper components and using your skill with software and experience to fill in the gap.
By focusing on the user value that they get from your product, you make them overlook the technological deficit — the focus on established tech, like the liquid-crystal display for the Game Boy — also keeps supply chain problems from being as problematic.
The Game Boy focused on battery life, durability (part of why Nintendo consoles are jokingly referred to as being made out of "Nintendium"), and killer app software like Tetris. Doing those things well helped Nintendo earn an extremely durable brand perception.
Essentially you're letting someone else's innovation give you the tools to put your own creative spin on things — because you're not spending tons of money on research and development, you've lessened your costs and the subsequent pressure to make up those costs in your final sales.
PlusHeart is an ongoing newsletter about esports and how the industry connects with its fans. Free and paid subscriptions are available. The best way to support me is a paid subscription, or Patreon.
Something from… not as much
So say you're a team heading to The International in Romania. Because of COVID-19, you're limited to 8 people (5 players + coach + manager + ???) in your team's traveling group. If you're a team looking to leverage the opportunity to make some new fans without being reliant on your gameplay, what do you do?
In short, you look at what you have to work with — in most cases, your strongest tool is access.
Team Spirit are a CIS team playing in The International, and their audience pales in comparison to Virtus.Pro, the bigger team from their region. VP have a larger budget, larger media team, and larger expectation for the content coming out of TI.
With much less to lose, and much more to gain, Spirit did what most teams should consider a baseline: they gave someone a phone, asked the players some questions, and let the content do the work.
I know some of us are going to look at this content and think "okay, that's really basic, and doesn't wow me" but that isn't the point: the idea is to formalize a relationship based on trust with both your players and the community.
In many cases, players are going to want to avoid these cameras as much as possible (especially when playing for such high stakes) but in reality the media side of it is just as important: if there's no organization to support them, there's no team to house them.
So when they make a crazy comeback to punch way above their weight (like they did at the start of the TI Main Event to beat Invictus Gaming in Game 12), you give fans something meaty to connect with. A hype play conquers the tough challenge of onboarding; but what’s going to keep them there?
This is not an esports-specific strategy: all sports (and I guess all brands) have moments where you think "huh, this is something that speaks to me." Whether it's via talent or message, there's something that vibes with you in a way that causes you to recognize something you want more of.
If you hit that feeling and there's nothing more to chew on because they didn't think it was worth their time, you see that, and move on.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't think teams can really afford to leave that on the table anymore, especially with the excuse of smaller budgets.
Everyone has a phone with a camera. Even if it's crappier quality than a Red Steadicam video that the Tier 1s might have, that does not matter at your level. Your fans want to know more. They want more food. Nourish them.
Even if you're the team that's going to come in last at a tournament, there's the opportunity to come away with a net positive of connected, attached fans. You might've earned way less than you thought, but developing loyal, paying fans is equally (if not more) taxing and difficult.
While higher-tier teams will have that expectation that this is part of the job, it still falls on the manager or owner to impart that necessity on the players; until esports contracts have the expectations of media accessibility built into a contract, it's about trust-building and relationship management to say "This is important. I know you hate it when I stick a camera in your face, but you need to trust me that I wouldn't do this if I didn't need to."
Esports (and sports) exist in such successful states because connection is a strong motivator — I will die on that hill. That connection trumps the spectacle of video bitrate or editing; the simplest and often most-effective content plan is "Do cool shit, and tell people about it."
I want to know why your players are special.
I want to know why I should believe in them.
I want to know how I can empathize with their struggles.
I want to connect to them to share their victories and support them in defeat.
These journeys and experiences are at the core of all sports brands, and part of what I wanted to do with this newsletter is talk about those basic, basic steps.
We'll hope that Team Spirit will keep that going, even if it's under tough circumstances.
I've been playing a lot of Metal Gear Solid V this week and I've been thinking about writing something about it. I can see a lot of prototype Death Stranding in it, and the experience has been pretty good.
Some reading from this week:
I Am, Therefore I Buy: Low Self-Esteem and the Pursuit of Self-Verifying Consumption by Anika Stuppy, Nicole L Mead, Stijn M J Van Osselaer for Journal of Consumer Research, Vol 46, Issue 5 (Feb 2020)