I’ve been attending the Electronic Entertainment Expo, which opens today in Los Angeles, since it calved off the Consumer Electronics Show in 1995. Last year, E3 attracted a record 68,000 attendees, including 15,000 fans, the first time regular consumers could buy tickets to the sprawling industry-only trade show.
This year, to further connect with that newly consumer-filled crowd, E3 partnered with Big Block Capital Group and big brands such as Volkswagen Jetta to launch Subnation. Owner Big Block said Subnation will provide “a series of brand experiences, live performances and immersive entertainment celebrating gaming and esports culture” during E3 and at a nearby afterparty called Subnation Live that will feature a performance by DeadMau5.
“Subnation is an omni-channel media platform bringing together gaming and esports with lifestyle brands,” said Big Block Capital CEO Seven Volpone. “Subnation’s mission is to elevate this global trend, celebrating the creators, innovators and consumers who are defining today’s gaming culture while providing brands a new forum to connect with these important and influential audiences.”
The idea, Volpone said, is to better engage and connect brands with the expressions of culture and lifestyle that have emerged around the gaming and esports sectors. Together, PwC estimates those sectors generated a combined $23.4 billion in the United States last year.
Gamer fans are buying jerseys for esports teams such as the new Overwatch League, now wrapping its first season with franchises on three continents. And those fans are showing up in droves to events such as the ESL One/Intel Extreme Masters championships, where 165,000 watched tournaments for five different games over two weekends in Katowice, Poland.
And on an average day on Amazon’s Twitch.TV online service, 15 million fans watch esports tournaments, game trailers and playthroughs, and the work of 2.2 million online streamers who play games while interacting with their audiences.
But they’re also collecting sneakers, making street art, listening to EDM and hip hop and much else, all components of gamer/esports culture that the Subnation events will try to capture at E3, alongside several brand-connected events and experiences.
Game industry champions like to note that last year’s $23.4 billion take is more than double the $11.2 billion the film business said it collected in 2017 domestic box office. And unlike the comparatively stagnant film business, games are growing like gangbusters, up almost 54 percent since 2013.
That growth has come from everywhere — in PC gaming, consoles, online titles — but especially in social/casual games. According to PwC, the social/casual game category generated almost $9.4 billion in the United States last year, up 18.9 percent in just one year.
Importantly, social/casual titles typically are played on mobile apps and devices by people who seldom call themselves gamers. That wildly different demographic has expanded the game business into a far more consumer-facing industry. For brands trying to reach younger audiences, it’s also helped turn games into a happy hunting ground of opportunity.
And as mobile devices have gotten more powerful and omnipresent, so too have the gaming and gaming-related entertainment experiences that consumers can find there.
Now we’re seeing more and more mobile-based, augmented-reality games, like the recently released Jurassic World Alive, which combines the Universal Studios dinosaur franchise with the real-world critter hunting and collecting capabilities of Pokemon Go (it even relies on the same Google Maps technology).
We’re also seeing the arrival of mobile AR-enabled esports leagues around titles such as Hado, where you can play a physical form of dodgeball using virtual fireballs.
AR and VR are only one facet of gaming’s future. Cloud technologies, blockchain and especially super-fast 5G mobile will allow ubiquitous and ever-more-engaging games of many kinds, just about anywhere people are. In the present represented at today’s E3, tens of millions of people are already happily playing far less technically ambitious titles.
Reaching and engaging these huge audiences has become its own art for publishers such as Seriously, which connect with fans using online influencers, prominent brands and popular intellectual property such as Jurassic World and Seriously’s own Best Fiends franchise.
“The phone is the modern remote control,” said Phil Stuckey, Seriously’s SVP of Brand & Marketing. “Mobile gaming is stronger than ever and has a ton of upside driven by a number of facets, (including) hardware and software advancements, as well as the rise of Android monetization. It’s no secret that each platform allows for entirely unique experiences and we’ve learned that experimenting on different channels has helped define specific audiences.”
It’s that explosion of new audiences, new platforms and new industry opportunities that E3 is trying to reflect with the Subnation partnership, said Volpone.
PwC says esports generated $184 million last year, and projects the sector will grow at a consolidated annual rate of 29.5 percent through 2022. Marketing researcher Newzoo is even more optimistic, saying in a recent report that 2017 esports revenues topped $655 million and will grow another 38 percent this year, substantially driven by brand investments.
As esports grows, the sector is increasingly attracting non-endemic, consumer-facing brands that see esports as a way to connect with audiences they can’t reach through traditional media.
Volpone, a long-time veteran of both esports and the music business, likens what’s happening now in gaming to the rise of rap music three decades ago. Early rappers created an authentic and powerful new sound that initially spoke to largely urban audiences. But as those sounds caught the ears of a broader audience, brands old and new rushed to connect through the music, fashion, street art and other lifestyle components of hard-core rap stars and broader hip hop culture.
“With esports, the PC gamers are the original rappers,” Volpone said. “They give esports authenticity, but with console gaming and mobile gaming, the audience reach is so much broader than just PC games. We’re connecting the mobile gamer and the console gamer to the PC gamer, without losing that authenticity. We’re so embedded from the authenticity side of living this O.G. that we know how to really create that FUBU, that Rocawear, that sense of it, in the esports and gaming lifestyle.”
So here we are, about to dive into another E3, an evolving event for an evolving industry, featuring new kinds of fans, new kinds of brands, new kinds of technology platforms, and now a new kind of consumer-facing experience that ties it all together. This is about to get really interesting.