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In Absence of Live Sports, E-Sports (and E-Sports Merchandise) Is Thriving

May 4, 2020 | Brendan Menapace

Live sports remain on an indefinite hiatus, and there’s no real definitive light at the end of the tunnel quite yet. One competition has thrived under the COVID-19 lockdown, though: e-sports.

You know, those competitive video competitions that we keep talking about. We’re always jawing on and on about how high-end brands are collaborating with leagues and teams for co-branded products, how events are selling out gigantic arenas like Madison Square Garden (when that kind of thing was allowed), and how the promotional products industry should be paying as much attention to them as they are to traditional sports like basketball or baseball.

Right now, in the absence of live sports, ESPN has been airing hours of e-sports competitions, like an NBA 2K tournament played by actual NBA players. But it’s aired plenty of competitions full of professional gamers, too. And when other sporting events have had to cancel altogether, e-sports has the unique ability to move its competition online-only. Meaning all of those people who would’ve filled up Madison Square Garden to watch something like a League of Legends tournament are watching from home, and the tournament continues as planned.

David Robertson, director of brand marketing for Champion, reportedly identified the e-sports market as full of “young, very digitally savvy [consumers]” for whom e-sports are “a passion point.”

Since this is basically the extent of team sports right now, the demand for e-sports merchandise, like apparel, is growing.

“I think [e-sports is] really going to get bigger honestly,” Christian Johnston and Dan Folger, founders of jewelry lifestyle brand GLD, told WWD. “I feel like fashion is going to follow at some point.”

Since the tournaments can still go on, there hasn’t been any disruption in production and sales for spring merchandise collections. And while the tournaments move online, since most viewers are accustomed to watching the games online anyway, buying products online isn’t a challenge, whereas someone used to only buying jerseys and T-shirts at stadiums might not have the motivation to search for it online.

This will still cause a slight dip in sales, as Newzoo, an analytics company that specializes in e-sports, projected e-sports revenue will dip to about $1.059 billion from $1.1 billion. Compared to other industries, this is a pretty manageable hit. Specifically, event-related revenue is expected to drop from $121.7 million to $106.6 million, mainly from lost ticket sales. At the same time, however, the total e-sports audience is expected to grow to 495 million around the world this year.

“Everybody is at home and looking for ways to entertain themselves,” Robertson told WWD. “And gaming is more popular than ever.”

“Consumers are looking for something real-time that they can consume and engage with,” Tyler Lewiston, general manager for Champion Teamwear, told WWD. “There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity if you pick the right partners, and we see this as more than just a temporary uptick.”

E-sports aren’t just a flash-in-the-pan trend that will fall by the wayside. Video games themselves are only becoming more sophisticated and immersive, and the competition element will follow that trend. Streaming is easier than ever, and right now it’s the only way a lot of people can watch something competitive in real time. The ones who already loved e-sports are watching, and there will be more fans jumping on the bandwagon as live traditional sports are still on a break.

“A lot of brands look at gaming as a hobby, but fundamentally, that’s wrong,” Matt Shaw, senior strategist for e-sports and brand innovation for Puma, told WWD. “It’s a language, a medium in which people communicate. It’s more than just entertainment. It’s part of the fiber and fabric of their daily lives. Ignoring gaming is like ignoring the internet.”

And right now, when events are moving online and promotional distributors are getting creative with ways to include products planned for an in-person event, e-sports’ unique ability to move online with little interruption at all is rare to say the least.

“What makes e-sports different is you don’t even have to leave your house,” Dre Hayes, co-founder of The Foundation and president of Kappa USA. told WWD. “You’ll never be able to play against [pro sports athletes], especially in something competitive, but in e-sports you can. What I think is going to happen with e-commerce merchandise and brands is that they’re actually going to get bigger.”

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