Last week saw the continuation of the Formula 1 eSports Pro Series at London’s Gfinity eSports Arena. The Pro Series is the finale of this year’s F1 eSports competition which saw over 66,000 players compete over 4 online qualifying rounds to secure a place in the inaugural F1 eSports Pro Draft. The events are streamed via Facebook and broadcast on numerous TV networks, and already have strong viewing figures (ca. 23 million digital impressions and over 3 million views on social media per event). Perhaps more importantly in this era of ageing sports audiences, 80% of all F1 eSports viewers are aged <35 with 56% aged 16-24.
F1 is not the only sports rights holder to have ventured into the eSports world, with the likes of FIFA, NFL, NBA, MLS and NASCAR all creating their own gaming leagues. With 2 billion gamers on the planet and 385 million interested in watching eSports, gaming has huge potential, especially amongst the younger audience that advertisers and sponsors crave.
When I joined F1 shortly after the Liberty Media takeover, it was clear that F1 had an ageing audience. The average F1 TV viewer’s age had increased from 46 to 52 within 6 years, we had limited social and digital presence and the sport had no strategy for how to engage younger audiences. Fast-forward 18 months and F1 has transformed its digital strategy with the launch of F1 TV (the sport’s first OTT service) as well as the re-launch of F1.com and its app. During this time, F1 also launched its own fantasy game and its eSports competition is now in its second season. The strategy has paid dividends, with the average number of F1 touchpoints growing by 6% to 2.2 per fan. More importantly, 51% of ‘new F1 fans’ since then are aged <35, with 36% aged <25 (compared to averages of 38% and 17% of wider sports fans respectively). Impressively, there has also been a 9% increase in <25s saying ‘they consume F1 more than they did last year’ (compared to an increase of just 2% amongst all sports fans). (Source: Ipsos)
Not only has eSports been a successful venture for F1, but other sports leagues are also benefitting from gains in younger-skewing audiences. According to James Ruth (Senior Director of Properties and Events at the MLS), roughly 65% of avid MLS followers became fans of soccer in the US by way of EA Sports’ FIFA, which is a higher percentage than those who became MLS fans by actually playing the sport. 2018’s FIFA eSports competition has gone from strength to strength, with the number of hours spent watching the three-day January event tripling year on year (from 700,000 hours in 2017 to 2.1m hours in 2018). Furthermore, the average FIFA eSports viewer tuned in for more than an hour in 2018 (up from 22 minutes in 2017) – that’s incredible when you consider the lower attention span that younger audiences generally have when watching TV nowadays. It highlights the power of eSports for rights holders in terms of growing younger audiences, and ensuring their sports are fit for the future.
That said, although eSports is growing globally at an impressive speed, there is definitely more room for growth. Whilst 76% of UK adults have heard of eSports (increasing to approx. 80% amongst <35s and 90% amongst gamers), only 34% of UK adults report having any interest, and just 30% report watching it (source: Harris Interactive). FIFA and Call of Duty have the highest visibility, with all other leagues seeing awareness of 20% or lower. Increasing knowledge of their eSports properties is an on-going challenge for sports rights holders, however the appetite for more eSports competitions amongst fans clearly exists. 37% of UK adults agree that ‘eSports is very entertaining’ (77% of eSports viewers) and 49% say ‘eSports has great potential for mass audiences in the future’ (75% amongst eSports viewers). But it’s not just the fans who agree, so do the sponsors: 58% concur ‘eSports can help sponsor brands connect with a younger audiences’ whilst 53% say that ‘brands that sponsor eSports benefit from the association.’
With that in mind, eSports are undoubtedly becoming a valuable commodity for sports rights holders, and it is likely that many other leagues/associations will follow suit and launch their own leagues imminently. Not only do eSports help find the fans of the future, they also provide appealing ‘digital and social-worthy’ content which will help sports buck the trend of ageing fanbases. Sticking to a TV-only strategy (like we previously had at F1) is not enough as behaviours are changing. Fans of the future are much more likely to engage with shorter form content, and are unlikely to be prepared to pay high TV costs to watch premium sport live. Moreover, most sponsors find younger audiences more attractive so initiatives like eSports will certainly help sports target this demographic. I have attended several meetings recently where prospective sponsors challenged me to prove that F1 performs well amongst younger audiences, highlighting the importance of eSports in helping F1 to show that since the new owners came on board it is more effective than ever at attracting <35s.
It is going to be fascinating to see how much eSports grow over the next few years, and how effective this genre will be at attracting fans to sports like F1. There are already calls for eSports to be included in the Olympics, with the IOC having discussed the possibility of its inclusion at a recent summit, and it feels like it is only a matter of time before this happens as the Olympic movement is crying out for sports that are able to attract younger fans. Despite this, there are still many who question whether eSports is the ‘the next big thing.’ Some refuse to even accept it is a sport, or the gamers as serious athletes in their own right. With the eSports industry set to become a multi-billion pound industry by 2020, is alienating or omitting the gamers and people behind it naive? Only time will tell.