Esports organizations are finally exploring ways to create deeper, more meaningful connections with their fans, but are they prepared for what a huge undertaking this can be?
While teams are amassing millions of followers across social media platforms, with fanatical supporters even getting tattoos of their logos, it’s easy to be mistaken in thinking that they’re the stars of the show that is esports. However, players and personalities are the real stars.
This is demonstrated frequently when esports athletes change teams and their dedicated fan base follow suit, now switching their team colors and overall allegiance. It’s not brands that are pulling off incredible plays on the server, nor brands signing autographs and taking selfies at events; again, it’s the players. They command most of the audience and, in a majority of cases, the diehard support of thousands.
In traditional sports, you may find your lifelong team depending on where you’re born or the colors that are placed on you by your family. Manchester United, Dallas Cowboys, Gloucester Rugby — the list goes on, and across numerous sports as just demonstrated. This is different in most cases when it comes to esports.
What are organizations doing to combat this trend, or at least attempt to build up a bigger fan base that is in it for the long haul no matter the result or roster? In the last few months, they’ve turned to fan membership schemes.
These programs typically take the form of subscription-based perks, in which fans can buy into a program that awards them with increased engagement, insight into behind-the-scenes happenings, and perhaps even helping to influence upcoming decisions.
Of course, there are perhaps other reasons for these programs to be popping up. The global health situation has cancelled almost every in-person event or at least forced an online substitution to take place since March 2020. Revenue may be down for many, if not all, organizations that don’t have other streams in place to work around the lack of merchandise sales and fan initiatives.
Regardless, experimenting with new revenue streams is important in an industry that’s notoriously difficult to make a profit in — at least on the team brand front — can’t hurt, right?
Kicking off with what is starting to become a trend, one of the most popular organizations in the space, Team Liquid, launched the beta for Liquid+ on August 11. The initiative provides an environment where “regular fan interactions earn opportunities for elite rewards, fan experiences, and access to players.”
North America organization Envy were next, announcing EnvyUS on November 9 with premium memberships costing $29.95 per year. Fellow North American org Cloud9 followed Envy just a day later, announcing Stratus. Starting on January 1, and costing $500 per year, they are taking a similar approach to their predecessors — providing an “exclusive annual membership experience” for “superfans.”
The eye-watering disparity in price between EnvyUS and Cloud9 Stratus is somewhat off-set by the welcome package that the latter offers. It includes a mouse pad, custom keycaps, a keychain, and limited edition t-shirts & jersey. This may not make up for the $500 price tag, but C9 will likely offer more ‘free’ physical items throughout the course of the subscription.
Now, this has been done before. SK Gaming had their own subscription service, SK Insider, over a year ago; accounting for 50% of the organization’s revenue at one point according to their co-founder. This may sound promising for the more recent initiatives but revenue was much harder to come by back then, especially in scale, so it’d be irrational to think that level of contribution to an org’s income is likely in 2020 and beyond.
It is indeed encouraging to see such initiatives from major organizations though, and if they prove to be a success in the future then no doubt this type of offering will become commonplace in the industry.
There are third-party attempts to increase and deepen engagement already in play, too. Socios.com have partnered with the likes of OG, Team Heretics, and Natus Vincere to encourage participation from fans. They offer ‘fan tokens,’ which are effectively platform-exclusive currency that supporters buy with their own money and then use to engage in fan polls and other methods of garnering engagement.
While it’s hard to say whether Socios.com are proving to be successful for teams on an engagement front, the involvement of longstanding and prominent orgs add a bit of credence to the concept.
Fnatic’s sneaky attempt
On November 11, around the time of Cloud9 and Envy’s announcements, London-based Fnatic revealed that they were to launch a crowdfunding attempt. Aimed at giving small pieces of the business to fans, they were hoping to reach a total of £1m in exchange.
The announcement coincided with the news that they had just raised an additional $10m, taking their investment to a total of around $35m to date, and proving that they weren’t simply turning to fans in a moment of desperation.
I see this as similar in motive to what the aforementioned organizations are doing. With a small sub-section of fans eventually owning a piece of the pie, they’re essentially buying into the future success of the team and are financially incentivized to support them for the foreseeable future.
If the goal of all of these efforts is to make fans stick around longer and be more emotionally (and financially, in some cases) invested, then Fnatic’s approach may be different but it has the same motive. You’re securing long-term fans that want to see you grow and succeed more than ever before.
Engagement isn’t easy
Now, keeping fans engaged with membership programs isn’t a light undertaking. Liquid, C9, and Envy are offering access to exclusive content that’s not available to the public — personnel is needed to make that happen. They also need to speak with their ‘superfans’ more often, and personnel is needed for that also. Hosting events, whether online and offline, requires plenty of hands in most cases too.
These teams can’t afford to now only focus on their paying fans, they need to keep their wider fan base happy with content, merchandise, experiences, and engagement that they’ve grown accustomed to. It’d also be advisable for them to try and obtain new fans also, and that’s not going to come easy.
These initiatives could well be a new, necessary stream of income for even the biggest of organizations, but it won’t be easy. This is just the start of things to come but I hope everything promised is fulfilled and such programs become a mainstay in the industry.