This year’s [a]list summit, now in its fourteenth installment, was dedicated to the fast-growing eSports and competitive gaming space, and how brands can use it to engage with the millennials—a demographic that’s almost impossible to reach through traditional media.

alist summit Christina Alajandre and Mike Tubman
Moderator Manny Anekal of TNL, Christina Alejandre and Mike Tubman

The first panel at the InterContinental Hotel in Los Angles on Thursday featured Christina Alejandre, general manager of ELeague and vice president of eSports at Turner Sports, and Mike Tubman, sports and competition manager at Buffalo Wild Wings.

In a longstanding partnership between ELeague and Buffalo Wild Wings, the restaurant chain shows televised eSports tournaments in its establishments, giving fans a place to congregate and cheer on their favorite teams.

When discussing the growing interest from non-endemic brands that are entering into eSports, Alejandre noted that “there has been a lot of education in the space. Some of it is attributed to ELeague, some of it to the growth of eSports in general. Now, it’s not about educating people eSports, but educating about how to reach out to partners and get the audience engaged with those partners.”

However, she followed by saying “if you’re a brand and you’re looking to get into eSports thinking, ‘okay, I’m just going to slap my label on and run a few commercials during the breaks,’ the eSports community isn’t going to embrace that.”

Tubman expressed a similar sentiment when describing how Buffalo Wild Wings entered the space. “What we really want to do is embrace and show eSports, which is any game people have a passion around,” said Tubman.

In talking about the approach toward engaging audiences, Tubman said: “We’re not targeting messaging just for millennial males, or anything like that. We just want to embrace the sport, put it on our screens and work with great partners to get people in there to watch it.”

alist summit Steven Roberts
Steven Roberts, executive chairman of eSports at ESL

Later in the morning, Steven Roberts, executive chairman of eSports at ESL, took to the stage to dispel stereotypes about the competitive video game audience and how brands can engage with them.

“ESports is a little more like track and field than it is the NFL,” said Roberts. “There are different disciplines and they don’t necessarily cross over. [ESports] are all different disciplines, and not only do the fans not necessarily cross over, but the players don’t necessarily cross over.”

Roberts also discussed what the gaming audience really is like. “The perception of gamers and eSports enthusiasts being in their mom’s basements by themselves playing games should not be the perception any longer,” he said. “It’s very social and these enthusiasts have a great deal of disposable income. So, dispel that perception if that’s in your mind.”

Gaming enthusiasts are socializing online, talking—or trash talking—with friends while playing. “They actually come to our events to meet the people they’ve been communicating and competing with,” said Roberts, indicating that live tournaments are an ideal means of engaging directly audiences.

Roberts also discussed the growth of non-endemic brands moving into eSports, particularly those who come from the world of traditional sports.

“A lot of sports celebrities, [including] Rick Fox, Shaq and Magic Johnson are buying or investing in [eSports] teams because they understand the dynamics of a sport, they understand the passion that goes into it, and they understand what goes into a team,” said Roberts. “These teams have nutritionists, sports psychologists and fitness people—anything to perform at those highest levels. This is no different from an NBA team, and these people understand that. That opens the door for different types of engagements for brands.”

Coinciding with the rising interest from traditional sports figures in eSports is interest from traditional media, which may help bridge the gap between enthusiasts who are already engaged with the eSports scene, and newcomers.

“As storytelling gets better—we’ve had content on ESPN, Fox and BBC—you’ll start seeing much more of a traditional media acceptance of eSports as well,” said Roberts.

This sentiment is already embraced by TBS and ELeague—telling players’ stories and the struggles they face in competition engages with audiences, even when they don’t know much about the game.

“Storytelling is something that is paramount to us,” said Alajandre.

“I look at the [traditional] sports titles as things that are a little easier for traditional guests to latch on to and consume,” said Tubman, while discussing the diverse audience that comes into the restaurant’s chain locations.”There isn’t that learning curve you have with Counter-Strike or League of Legends, which is chaos on the screen if you don’t know what’s happening.”