When I talk content with clients or just people in general, I really like to stress two words: create value. The simplicity is part of it: if you have a really easy-to-remember lens to view your choices through, it becomes easier to make the right decision.
This week I wanted to talk about something I kind of formulated while figuring out how an esports team can increase their footprint and grow their audience. It falls back to that “create value” mantra, but further breaks it down into the idea of generating goodwill.
Goodwill is the lifeblood, and makes your audience more tolerant when it comes to asking them to spend their currency. This applies to both money and time. Ideally, you want to store more goodwill in your bank than you spend, which allows for a good buffer in case of tough times or a downturn in your results.
At its most basic, though, you’re generating goodwill by creating value — the two are intimately related. With that in mind, how do esports teams generate goodwill?
I narrowed it down to three basic pillars, and obviously a bunch of splintered variables inside them.
Win matches, and take home championships. Prove to your audience that their support is worth their time. It’s valuable to be a fan of your team, because your team is a winner, and your audience gets to feel like a winner by extension.
Create content, which gives the audience value by sharing experiences they wouldn’t get to see otherwise, educates them to better themselves, or entertains them in some other way.
Perform charity, which hits to the moral and ethical cores of your audience. By performing charity — giving money, giving time, giving bandwidth — your team provides value by saying “if you are supporting us, you’re supporting people who do good things. Take that moral victory.”
In an ideal world, a team is doing all three of these things, but in most cases, you’re going to be focusing on one. This is why an esports brand can be feast-or-famine, and why the resource gap between S-Tier, A-Tier and B-Tier teams can be so stark: if you can only afford to do one, you have to succeed at it in order to keep your team afloat, build your legacy, and keep your employees paid/loyal.
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Another important aspect of these points is that they must be approached from a place of altruism and humility — they cannot be conditional on a fanbase supporting the team, because if it did, it would continue to drain the “bank of goodwill.”
This is an important thing to drill into your head: in order for a fan to give back, they must first be given to to build a foundation of their support.
I mention this because there’s a real possibility for an abusive relationship to develop (moreso in streamers than teams, but hey, it applies here). Saying that an audience will only get content if a certain amount of jerseys are sold, or in a more extreme case, “We’ll only be able to afford a player if you do X” places the onus of reward on the audience and absolves the team of responsibility.
It also involves a very toxic narrative of “we get to do this cool stuff, but only if it’s on your dime.” This creates a feedback loop where the entity gets too used to working with a safety net. The house of cards will collapse eventually, even if it isn’t next week.
While this might seem like an extreme example, it’s important to reinforce that emphasis on humility. Esports is a luxury industry to take part in, and there isn’t a big moral cause that drives its expansion. If you’re someone that’s a fan with a shitty station in life, esports (or streamers) may be a form of escapism; this allows you to, by proxy, enjoy the victories or milestones that other people get to live “for real.”
By keeping this in mind and having it guide a workplace ideology, your organization is constantly seeking approval and not resting on its laurels: if it’s going to live a luxury life and enjoy the big money, it might as well keep the mentality of sharing it with the people who enable it.
And yes, I will mention that to the outside audience, a lot of esports looks much more glamorous than it actually is. A lot of teams still aren’t profitable in the space, and struggle with resources and budget problems that many fans just won’t see, understand, or validate.
Yes, there is that feeling of “what do you guys have to complain about? You’re playing video games for a living” that dismisses very real concerns about health, boundaries and fan entitlement. I didn’t want to dismiss that, but at the same time, it’s the job of teams to build up goodwill so that struggles are given credibility and aren’t dismissed. After all, your team is putting in work to earn your sympathy.
The Three C's
I think it’s important to look at all three things I mentioned above (competition, charity, content) with a series of questions:
What is in my control when it comes to outcome?
What is in my control when it comes to messaging?
What is in my control when it comes to consistency?
For instance, you cannot control your consistency or outcome when it comes to competitive results: your players are never going to 100% win every series. However, you can create value by creating good messaging around matches. If you win or lose, you can educate your audience about the game they love, or at least frame those wins or losses in ways that bolster your brand.
With content, your messaging and consistency can be controlled, but your outcome may be variable. Until you’ve built up a solid expectation with your fanbase, some content might fall completely flat despite it being what you consider your best piece yet. It falls to your internal structure (stakeholders) realizing that it’s valuable to do regardless of numbers.
With charity, again, your messaging and consistency can be controlled, but the outcome is also variable depending on whether your audience sees your charity as cynical. If you’re only donating your time and money to be seen (rather to be generous or altruistic) you’re taking a gamble on whether your audience will notice. The public loves seeing this activity punished.
Fortunately (or unfortunately), the nature of sports means that any issues tend to get forgotten about, as long as the team wins games. When a team is hot and the victories are frequent, it’s much easier to overlook things like terrible merch or a lack of content — however, again, this is all contingent on something that is very out of a team’s control.
Because esports has the added problems of developer changes with non-competitive players in mind, a team that is dominant in one meta may not be so strong in another. This is where that bank of goodwill comes in, because there’s only so long that a team can lean on that narrative of “You know we were good once, and you know we’re good for it!”“
Content and charity are both more stable elements, but more difficult to implement. They can’t be done reactively, because the motives for doing so can be antithetical to the value they’re trying to promote — “Oh crap, our brand is tanking, better put out a vlog or donate some money to the homeless” isn’t a good look. To stakeholders, the internal value of content or charity brandbuilding doesn’t become apparent until it’s needed the most, and it can be difficult to enforce that consistency without buy-in.
I guess that’s the feeling that frustrated me most when I see a lack of consistency from teams; it’s like we’re taking a step away from the inherent value of something produced and looking too much into the meta importance of it. If you’re creating a vlog series with the aim of having it sponsored by a title partner for more money, it should still be about providing value through the vlog. Treating it as a piece of content specifically to generate sponsor revenue or to generate sales means that it “feels like marketing”; it avoids the altruism needed for it to feel genuine and authentic to your audience.
That’s why it’s difficult to create “marketing that doesn’t feel like marketing”, and why it’s especially difficult to deal with consumers or fans who’ve been conditioned towards cynicism. If all they’re used to is being exploited while getting nothing in return, why should they try to be good fans?
I guess this is a Catch-22, because it can feel that you can’t create a solid product without budget, and you can’t generate budget without a successful product. However, as I’ve said before, you don’t necessarily need a high-quality product if your goal is to create value.
It all comes down to what you can replicate consistently in order to created an expected experience from your fans. If they know what they can expect from your Thursday pre-game vlog, they’re likely to forgive lower production if they can expect something funny from it.
I use examples from pro wrestling a lot in talking about esports content because they’re very similar in terms of the stakes and scales of organizations. You have independent performers (wrestlers, players, streamers) looking to work on their own personal brands to both bolster people who can pay them money (independent companies, teams) and hopefully get to the point where big organizations (S tier teams, national companies) see value in them.
All Elite Wrestling does a weekly “Being The Elite” vlog that started out as something shot on an iPhone without a microphone by one of their performers. Because it was giving people something they found valuable (behind-the-scenes access, “secret club” in-jokes), it became something that AEW uses to advance storylines, sell new merch, and build up lesser talent.
I think companies get hung up on the big and grandiose projects because it’s sexy to be able to put on a pitch deck, but the smaller projects that really hit hard are just as important, because you’re telling a sponsor that you, your company can make something from scratch. It’s not saying “we’re really hot right now” — it’s saying “we’re capable of making ourselves hot whenever we want”, which is infinitely more valuable.
I guess at its core, I think people should stop being scared of that experimentation; just do something consistently, learn and use the data to inform your decisions. Have an honest dialog with your fanbase, and again, put yourself in their shoes: their attention and passion are a finite resource, but if they feel they’re getting a good return on their investment, they’ll give you a bigger portion in the future.
While there is definitely a very cynical place you can go to as a marketer in terms of manipulating your audience, I’d rather not take that route because esports is something I hold very dear. If my job was purely to make money for the brand I was working for, I think I could take a much colder view of it. However, since I’m essentially creating the product I myself would want to consume, it means I’m a bit more sensitive: I want to be able to believe that there’s potential for it to be “done right.”
Whether that’s naieve or not, I don’t know. But I’ll leave it for another time.
I’ll be streaming on Boxing Day (Dec 26th) instead of on Christmas Day this week. I hope you have a good holiday, and that it’s something that treats you well.
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See you in the new year!