Ep. 44: How eSports is Adapting & Building Community: John Davidson
In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
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Rob Cressy 0:04
Welcome to The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood. A discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry to enhance the fan experience and operate game day more efficiently. I'm your host, Rob Cressy. And joining me today is John Davidson, Director of Business Development for PRG, Production Resource Group, and president of the Esports Trade Association. John, great to have you on the show.
John Davidson 0:35
Thank you for having me.
Rob Cressy 0:36
Can you give a quick overview of who you are and what you do?
John Davidson 0:41
Sure, just a quick overview would be that I got really involved in the esports industry through my role as head of partnerships at Gamestop, where I built the partnership and the esports strategy over there and had the opportunity to really gain a ton of great connections in the industry and find valuable ways to engage the audience which deals with complexity gaming on the GameStop Performance Center, the leading training facility in the world deals with Team Envy, Optic Gaming, CSL and some of the biggest teams in the world. Then I moved over to PRG, where I lead our eSports vertical globally looking to help with live events and broadcasting and augmenting the fan experience enhancing the fan experience. And also, my role as president Esports Trade Association. What we're doing there is bringing together the industry alongside complementary experts to help enhance the business practices for a very young industry to really maximize those best practices and develop more stable, sustainable growth.
Rob Cressy 1:55
Awesome. So we've talked about eSports a bunch on this show. In a variety of different ways from, hey, how can we make it more accessible to fans who may not be into gaming and or brands. Now let's look at this in terms of how eSports is adapting in this current landscape. And quite frankly, I believe this is one of the biggest opportunities that is out there. Because when live sports from the major standpoint is gone. Now there's an opportunity and there's a void that needs to be filled in eSports at its core, is the ability for people to watch someone else competitively play video games. So I'm curious to hear from you how eSports is adapting to what's going on right now.
John Davidson 2:44
Yeah, as you said, it's pretty natural. Every traditional sports league is freaking out they're saying how are we going to have events without fans? How are we going to engage the audience and eSports is saying "Hold my beer, I've been doing this for 20 years." And so what's interesting is that eSports as it as it grows is really just going back to its roots. eSports was born and bred online and it grows the opposite of traditional sports, traditional sports would be me and you create a game. It gained some traction locally, we have a league in our town grows to a state level and then globally, right and, and we've seen that happen with these leagues that are 100 years old. With eSports, it started online and it's growing down to the local level. And this year was going to be a significant year for live events and locally franchised eSports with Call of Duty league and Overwatch league. Essentially what those two leagues have done is they've brought in owners who have purchased local franchises and essentially they're copying the traditional sports model. This year was the first year that they were hosting games at arenas all over the world. So what's interesting is you look at the challenges of the two spaces, traditional sports, and eSports. They're really the opposite. traditional sports is trying to figure out how to live in this virtual world where they're broadcasting online, linear TV is dying. Of course, young people aren't watching traditional TV eSports is trying to figure out how to attract fans to live events. And so it's more of a pause, I would say as far as the evolution of the esports industry to step back and say, Okay, we're pausing our plans to engage life, and we're stepping back and going back to our comfort level, but that's it. Which is a big challenge for sponsors more than anybody else, I would say.
Rob Cressy 5:05
So now let's sort of expand on this and talk about the community because I think one of the big differentiators for eSports is we see the numbers in terms of growth and eyeballs and the number of people who watch and want to take part in some of these things. And there's a large majority of people on the outside looking in saying, I don't play video games, I'm not of that demographic. I don't understand it. And they don't feel like they're part of that community. But right now, there is such a good opportunity to embrace that community that is there with you that whether it's 20 years ago, or someone's just coming on board now. So how is the industry embracing the community.
John Davidson 5:48
Well right now people need gaming more than ever and eSports needs them. And I think that's a change in the dynamic from what we've seen in the recent past, I think there's a desire to go mainstream for eSports. The litmus test for me is really the Olympics. If you ask any gamer should eSports be the Olympics, they will argue til the cows come home that it absolutely should be, and eSports is a real sport and we have this desire to go mainstream. So we have gone towards the traditional leagues as far as trying to expand. In the industry there are people who want the core and they say we just need to bring the core audience we don't need to bring in the casual gamers but I think when you're looking at expanding, its expanding into that casual demographic. So at the same time, we've seen traditional sports leagues dip their toe in eSports. So You look at NBA with the NBA 2K League, MLS with FIFA, NFL with the Madden Championship Series, and now you're seeing Major League Baseball with MLB The Show and of course, NASCAR with iRacing. Now, these traditional sports that were kind of dipping the toe and saying is this something I should pay attention to need eSports and gaming desperately because that's everything the kids are doing. I think there are some complexities and there's a lot of contexts that need to go in these traditional sports engaging with eSports because the NBA had a rude awakening with the NBA 2K league which turns out NBA 2K is a top-three seller the last three years as far as video games go. It has a massive player base. It doesn't have a massive viewership base.
And what that means is that it just doesn't simply translate watching NBA 2K, and playing NBA2K. There's a very different effect watching LeBron dunk on somebody, whether it's in person or on TV, and watching my avatar dunk on your avatar. When you and I are doing that when you and I are playing, that's really fun. And you know, we can talk trash and it's, it's a good time. But if somebody else is watching us, it just doesn't have that same effect. Now, there are a couple of leagues where this naturally falls into play. So iRacing with NASCAR number one: watching it on the screen is very similar to watching NASCAR, you're just watching cars go against each other. The other thing is that the skills translate really well. And that's why they have you know, NASCAR professional drivers doing it because they're in simulators. They're not playing on a controller. They're in a simulator which feels very similar to racing. The other one that's in a really good spot is FIFA with MLS. And what I've been I've had many conversations with Major League Soccer, both when I was at GameStop, and that PRG and they have such a majority of their young fans become fans of soccer by playing the video game FIFA. So there's just this natural overlap that you're, you're experiencing naturally for those guys. I think the problem is that every traditional sports league thinks that young people want to do the virtual version of what old people do physically and that's not true. It's not that simple. There is such a thing is good video games and bad video games. It's not like I want to do the same thing as my parents, I just want to be in a virtual world. No, I want to play Overwatch and League of Legends. We can go further into this if you're interested but I think there's a lot to learn and a lot of opportunity in getting into video games at the gaming community loves and enjoys, not just the simulation virtual versions of your traditional sport.
Rob Cressy 10:23
So what I want to get into is actually something that is a little bit more tactical in terms of a fan engagement side of things regarding the building of the community, and that is going to the community versus pulling the community to you. And I believe this is a gigantic challenge because one, the majority of companies and brands and leagues out there do not see themselves in their marketing as building a community. But one of the things that Esports in a lot of other scored high growth sports has done a good job of is they have built the community They have embraced it, as opposed to trying to bring everybody to you. And you can just think about the way that things just slowly grow. But from a marketing mindset, so many brands want things to be super fast, but relationships don't work that way.
John Davidson 11:18
Right? Well, yeah, exactly one thing that you look, you know, the word relationship is actually a perfect word there. Young people demand more from brands than previous generations because we've grown up around it, we're numb to advertising and especially the younger you get, and I call it a healthy skepticism, which is gamers are fine. We have this view that we are fine without any outside friends. We're over here doing this thing that is growing and is massively being adopted. You guys are the ones who want to come into my space but hold up where were you before I was cool? See?
And so we want to make sure that the people who are coming to us have the interest of our community, which is very tight-knit and not just interested in my cache and my eyeballs for monetization. Right? So what I would urge people to do, and I'm going to give two examples here that are both with Fortnite, but I think they're, they show a lot of tact, and even some humility, really. So the NFL did a deal with Fortnite, a year and a half or two years ago, and what they did was NFL player skins in the game. I thought that was really cool and it showed great awareness that right Rather than saying, Hey Fortnite come to us and do a tournament before an NFL game, they said, No, let's go to where all the kids are. Let's enhance their experience. Now, I think the partnership was a little short because when you have certain jersey numbers with people running around with guns shooting each other, I think that was a complexity that they did not calculate during the partnership. But I thought that was really cool. And then one thing that's about to happen, I believe it's April 23, through 25th. Travis Scott is doing a tour in Fortnite. So he's doing a concert in the game. This is something that the DJ marshmallow has done before, but he has multiple times multiple days where he's debuting brand new music, and it's in the game. What I would urge you know, teams and leagues to figure out, is don't just do what you've always done. And then but just put it on Twitch, right? Or don't just rebroadcast old games. Look for an opportunity to create virtual experiences, right? Because we know that young people value experiences more than even owning products. And so when you want to get into that, it's here's the thing, young people don't care about your content. That's the problem. Right? Like you care about your content. older generations care about that content. They eat that up. But young people care about experiences, they want to be able to tell their friends that they did something that none of their other friends got to do. Right? They want something unique. So how can you build a virtual experience? That then is social currency for young audiences that then you're building the world loyalty because you make them cool with their friends.
Rob Cressy 15:03
This is super important. I want to make sure that we hammer this home, you said, looking for new opportunities to create new experiences. And I feel like this is something that takes an element of being forward-thinking. It takes an element of having the pulse on your community. But Rob, what if we don't have a community? Well, step one is always think about the value you can deliver for someone else first. And I think when you start with that, as your baseline is going to put you in a much better position to succeed. And I use this example all the time. It was an absolute mindset shift for me in terms of how I thought about marketing and fan engagement. I was at an event for, let's call it working professionals. And it was a bunch of awesome people in the room and it was a super dope venue. And I was like, wow, this is a great experience. But then there was a bank that had a little table there and maybe there are only like five sponsors there was a table. And you know what the bank did? They were handing out stress balls, just as I looked at their the globe or something like, hey, do you want one of these? And I was like, Yeah, I cannot believe how lameness is, as someone in marketing, approved this and said, you know, it's a good idea, we should go to this event where there's going to be a highly valuable audience. And we're going to give the experience of handing out stress balls. And I was like, from that moment, my mindset completely shifted for the rest of my life. Because I was like, What is the complete opposite that you can do? Because I only share that experience on the negative side of things. But now imagine, if you're a team league brand school, and this is on any level, this doesn't have to be on eSports This doesn't have to be the NFL. You could be a mom Booster Club, and be able to do this in just think about the experience and one of my favorite Marketing mottos that I live by "Smiles don't lie". If you can make someone smile with your experience, then you're going to start building the relationship, rinse and repeat.
John Davidson 17:14
Yeah, that's really well said, you know, there's when I talk to brands all the time and I give them four ways to add value to the experience, because like I said gamers, we're fine without you being a part of what we're doing. You're the one who wants to be part of what we're doing, right. So this is kind of a roadmap, you can do all of these, or you can do some of these. And this is not an exhaustive list. I'm sure there are more ways to add value, but these are four key pillars.
One is the fan experience, this is a little different right now without live events. But To put it simply with a live event, when a fan goes to the arena to watch a team how is it a better fan experience that your brand is getting credit for because it's your activation. Right now, if you look at live events, we can talk about this more in a minute. But as you know, that's going to take technology, how is that at home fan experience better? The second one is a competitive experience. So a unique thing about the gaming audience is more people play, who also watch and what I mean by that is, for instance, you know, I love all sports. I'm a big NFL fan. I love watching football, but I don't play football. You know, part of that is that I'm 37 years old, and I've been falling on concrete for a living, skateboarding and so I can't get out there. But the barriers to entry are low, people are typically young and so they want to also play so how can you enable amateur competition. This could both this could be at an event or this could be completely secondary. The third one is a unique experience. I talked about this a little bit about how, you know, young people value experiences over owning products, this could be playing with a pro, right? This could be going somewhere like the GameStop Performance Center that I talked about, where you're experiencing how pros train at the highest level in the world, something like that. Something that can give you an opportunity to take a selfie and show your fans or show your friends look at what I'm doing and you wish you were me, right. Then the fourth one, which is probably the most important and what we're talking about a lot is content. You know, content is king, but especially in the esports community, this is a very digitally native, a tech-savvy group of people who are always on their phones, they're on Twitch, they're on YouTube, and if they're not consuming your content they're consuming somebody else's. I know I'm on my phone more than I should be. I have the context of 37 years before there were smartphones and everything. So, when you look at young people, you know, give them content that they care about and is meaningful. And if you can do those four, you're going to be successful. There's obviously more detail to that. But that's how I suggest to add value to this community. And then they will embrace you and this is an audience that will champion you, when you support them first.
Rob Cressy 20:35
All right, and we will make this the last topic and that is embracing digital marketing because you have to not just because it is an add on. And the last thing that you talked about was content and the power of it in so often, content and marketing can be the last thing and I think about the current landscape that we're in right now. And it is so easy to say Well, you know what, we're just going to not do marketing, we're just going to not communicate with our audience. But guess what, this becomes a gigantic issue. Because imagine on February 15, if a local company or brand had not built out their digital communication channels, and then all of a sudden out of nowhere, we get thrown into this new world where people everyone's working from home, and what is the only way that brands can communicate with their audience in terms of what's going on and what they're doing? And that's in terms of digital, so you cannot overlook the importance of this. And with this in mind, it is so so, so important to optimize mobile. Can you talk a little bit more about both of these things?
John Davidson 21:49
Absolutely, brands and leagues they love what's safe, right? We like to do what we're used to doing. It's comfortable. We know how measure it, it's reliable, we know what to expect. You know what gets measured gets done, right. If you can't measure something, or if something's unique, I mean, this is the type of risk that can cause somebody their job. So in the past, you know, I've been on the agency side, and I've worked with a lot of agencies in the past, and you're always pushing the newest tech, you want to create some, some cool, innovative activation that not only can you deliver for your client, but then you can create case studies and you can tell your other clients about it, you can create PR around it. That's a lot of the perspective of the agency. The response to that from brands is typically a cool idea, but let's do what we did last time. What's cool about right now is what we did last time isn't available. So what's gonna happen is as these brands are forced into digital marketing, they're going to experience the benefits of digital marketing that they've only heard about or they aren't even aware of yet, right? Necessity is the mother of invention. And so I, I also always say is it's easier to sell a case study that an idea. And I think there's going to be an explosion in digital marketing here because number one, the brands that dive in are going to see that that was the right choice. They're going to get comfortable with it, and just the same way that they were comfortable with doing their old types of marketing. It's going to become less risky as they continue to do it because they have more experience doing it. Secondly, while the first movers will have the greatest advantages, this the ones that are slower to adapt, will see case studies from their competitors, right and they'll have agencies pitching them and they're gonna say, hey, Coke, look at what Pepsi did. Then they're gonna say, Oh, we have to do that and now I know, based on what my competitors doing, I didn't need to get there myself. What I would say, for brands and traditional leagues to get a start as to what should I do with digital marketing, benchmark what eSports teams and leagues have done because as far as you look at using social media more as you look at engaging people who are across the world from you. What's so interesting is that these teams and leagues in eSports, they don't even know how much they know because it comes so naturally to them, because they've always done it this way. Until you have traditional leagues who they're experts in traditional media and live event marketing, and they probably have some, some expertise in that that they can share with eSports. But in this world, I would say make a great relationship, a connection with somebody who is part of a team or a league in eSports, and just pick their brain and say, What have you done? How is this? And just ask all the dumb questions, don't be afraid to do that and they're gonna be able to help you leapfrog your competition and, and understand what to do. And I would also say, maybe hire a few those people be a social media manager who comes from an Esports team and let him tell you what, what you should be doing.
Rob Cressy 25:29
That was such a simple action item. And I am going to reiterate it again because this is something that will work if you do it. So I want you to go on LinkedIn, and find someone associated with an Esports team. But Rob, I don't know who that is type in eSports teams, type in eSports leagues and Google any of those things, find a team or a league and then find someone within that organization and just say, You know what? This is new to me, can I get 10 minutes just to ask you a few questions, and guess what that person is likely to say? Yes. And if that person doesn't someone will, if you reach out to 10 people, how do I know because john and I are talking about right now, and we didn't know each other a week ago. So this does work. And then from there have a growth mindset of learning in be genuinely curious, because just because you don't know how to do it. Don't let the excuses come and say we don't have the time. We don't have the resources. We don't have the knowledge, we don't have the budget. The key to growth is one step at a time. take that first step to reach out to one person and say, You know what, we want to get better. We know we don't know everything, but we are going to learn in the john, I really enjoyed this conversation in the way that you think in the trajectory of Esports where Can everybody connect with you?
John Davidson 26:54
Well, I appreciate you having me. You can connect with me on LinkedIn. You know, when you're on there googling people who to help you figure out what to do type in "John Davidson PRG". The picture of me in a suit on a skateboard, that's a long story. You can also find me and follow me on twitter at @j0hndavids0n
Rob Cressy 27:20
And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. What is one question that you have, that john or myself might be able to answer for you regarding fan engagement, content creation, or digital marketing? Because guess what, there's a crazy thing that might happen. If you hit up either of us on any social media platform and ask us a question. You might just get the answer to it. You can hit up fan food on twitter at fan food on demand on Instagram at fan app or on LinkedIn. And as always, you can hit me up on all social media platforms at Rob Cressey. You can hit up FanFood on Twitter @FanFoodOnDemand, on Instagram @FanFoodApp or on LinkedIn. You can hit me up on all social platforms at @RobCressy.