This year’s [a]list summit focused almost entirely on the theme of eSports and competitive gaming. While everyone agreed that authenticity is the key to engaging with an eSports audience, there’s also the matter of where and how to engage with audiences—decisions that are just as important as the brand messages themselves.

Gaming Videos Are A Driving Force

The world of competitive video gaming, including eSports, is more expansive than one might think, as SuperData founder and CEO Joost van Dreunen explained at the [a]list summit from the InterContinental Hotel on Thursday. When considering how games are consumed, one must think beyond the actual players and account for audiences too. Van Dreunen continued by saying that viewers don’t just watch competitions, they also watch YouTube videos for how to get through levels. The entire livestreame and VOD universe falls under the umbrella term “gaming video content,” which has about 1.1 billion unique viewers worldwide across all devices.

Van Dreunen stated that eSports has two main categories: people who watch but don’t play, and people who watch and play. Those combined numbers surpass the actual playing audience. Traditionally, people were only interested in watching if they were buying the games. But now a much larger audience can be reached (about 234 million people worldwide) who fit into both categories, and competitive games are changing how to meet this audience.

For example, van Dreunen talked about how Riot games is making League of Legends more watchable. The developers have worked to decrease the clutter on the screen, making the game easier to understand. At the same time, as Facebook and Twitter move into the video space, “games will be a driving force in that and eSports will be one of the spear points in that effort,” he said.

Following The Player Journey

Amazon owns streaming platform Twitch, but that’s just one way it’s involved with the video game industry. It also has multiple developers under the Amazon Game Studios brand name. Steve Fowler, head of marketing for Amazon Game Studios, explained how the company is actively increasing its efforts to follow the entire player and customer journey from beginning to end. Amazon’s process follows an individual who first sees or hears about a game and then asks about it. Then it continues as they watch others play before actively becoming players themselves.

“It’s not just the player journey anymore, it’s also the viewer,” said Fowler, who also emphasized the importance of video during his panel. He asked his developers the hypothetical questions ‘what if, instead of active players being the sole measure of success, they considered the number of viewers? What kind of impact would that change in perspective have on game development?’

Fowler later shed light on the potential for video content in gaming. “You mostly watch League of Legends from the player’s perspective. Imagine if you had to watch the Super Bowl from Tom Brady’s perspective the entire time. It would get pretty stale. We have a long way to go, but I’m super excited because I think that there are unique things we can do that even traditional sports can’t do because we’re in interactive entertainment.”

Mobile Gamers Aren’t “Gamers” Yet

Mobile is a major force in the gaming industry, but its entry into eSports has been relatively slow in comparison to console and PC gaming. A panel featuring Uyen Uyen Ton Nu, director of marketing at Super Evil Megacorp (makers of Vainglory), and Casey Chafkin, chief marketing officer and founder of the mobile eSports platform Skillz, discussed the defining differences between the two types of players.

“Mobile gaming at large is still a fledgling, niche area. But the potential for mobile eSports is astronomical,” said Ton Nu. She explained how with billions of devices around the world able to run a game like Vainglory, the addressable audience is massive, and therefore, it had tremendous potential to grow in the eSports market. Ton Nu also cited Vainglory’s incredible user growth as an example of this potential.

However, Chafkin deems things a little differently. “What we see is not just a size difference, but a self-perception difference,” he said. “Mobile gamers don’t see themselves as gamers. The average player on Skillz is playing 58 minutes a day and they are self-described as non-gamers, or casual gamers. When we think about the maturity of the space and the audience, a lot of it has to do with where the audience sees themselves in their evolutionary history.”

Skillz users are often playing games that people wouldn’t normally consider to be an eSport–like a finger bowling or bubble popping game—competitively. “I think this speaks to the idea that competition is intrinsic in gaming,” said Chafkin.

Although some might see it as paradoxical, Chafkin explained that “mobile gamers don’t see themselves as part of the eSports ecosystem, even though they’re actively participating in competitions.”

However, as mobile gaming continues to mature with more people playing competitively, Chafkin believes that they are becoming the base level of a healthy sports ecosystem, which is the amateur level of competition.

Making An Impact

Finding an audience—especially in eSports—doesn’t mean anything if you don’t know how to engage with them.

“For a brand to really make an impact, it can’t be about them,” said Bill Young, head of strategic partnerships and sponsorships, eSports at Twitch, in explaining how brands should take an altruistic approach.

Later in his panel, Young delved into fan engagement on the livestreaming platform. “I think what makes Twitch unique is the chat feature,” he said. “There are other live video platforms and other communities, but the chat feature that accompanies live video is the heart and soul of the community itself. You’re not just talking to your friends and folks who like the same games, you’re also talking to the content creators themselves, and they respond.”

In a separate panel, Hunter Leigh, head of eSports operations at Yahoo, Walter Wang, director of eSports at HTC and Candace Brenner, vice president of marketing at J!NX, talked about creating strong engagement with an eSports audience.

In comparing the Yahoo Sports and Yahoo eSports audiences, Leigh said “it’s striking how different those audiences are. [The eSports demographic] is much younger. The average [traditional] sports fan is about 35 and the average eSports fan is about 23. It’s sort of TV versus PC. ESports is also overwhelmingly male—the demo is 18-to-34-year-old-men, which is great—except that it comes with a whole host of challenges that are even more different from sports.”

Leigh explained some of the challenges come from trying to engage with a tech-savvy group, as they have grown up with technology and PC gaming. Chief among the challenges is ad blocking. “Ad block rates in eSports are absurdly high,” said Leigh. “Think of the highest number any website told you about their ad block rate, double it, and you’re getting in the range of the average eSports ad blocker.”

He continued by saying, “you can’t serve ads to this audience. If you want to connect with the core eSports audience, you need to do it through some kind of integrated content and probably get yourself on Reddit. Ad blockers and Reddit are probably two of the most fundamental concepts in getting into this space that non-endemic brands need to understand. The difference between hitting on Reddit and not hitting on Reddit to an ‘advertising’ campaign . . . is dramatic, and authenticity is a key part of landing all of that.”

Although authenticity was discussed at great length at the [a]list summit, the members of the panel also expressed the importance of platform to help bring it forward.

“Each game has its own community, and you need to speak to it,” said Wang. “All, or most of them, go on Reddit. If we don’t hit Reddit, some of the content is just not worth making.”

“When you look at your viewership numbers after a piece of content, you know night-and-day whether something has hit Reddit or not,” said Leigh, further emphasizing the point. “The platforms in this space are well established and passively powerful. Reddit isn’t actively messaging eSports in one direction or another, it’s just kind of out there. YouTube is a giant website that’s doing a lot of different things, and eSports is a piece of it. Even Twitch, which is very gaming focused—eSports is a slice of them. They are platforms that are allowing content to come on to them. Working with them and getting real presence on them is the difference between making a piece of content that nobody sees and making a piece of content that everybody sees.”

Brenner helped sum up the conversation by stating, “you have to tap into what the heartbeat is. If you’re talking about creating really compelling content or campaigns, or just a connection, it’s about tapping the emotional aspect of whatever it is. . . . It’s really about collaborative conversation and pulling out of that brand in what we think will resonate with that audience.”