Esports has a marketing problem, but changing the name won’t fix it

There seems to be a consensus that esports has massive potential. It’s important to note, however, that this doesn’t mean esports is big already. Rather, it means esports is on the cusp of greatness, of breaking out of its current niche status and into the mainstream.

How exactly this breakthrough will be achieved, though, is a matter of constant debate. The name is one major sticking point. While it’s a good thing we seem to have finally moved beyond the esports/eSports debate that pervaded for so many years, some in the industry seem to think that that isn’t even the right discussion to be having, that all versions of that name fail to accurately explain what esports is all about.

Which brings us to this recent tweet, by Foundry IV CEO Tobias Sherman, currently doing the round on esports Twitter:

He goes into more detail in his Medium post, but the gist is as follows. Sponsor discussion around esports has a habit of generating the same questions time and again. Chief among those is one that will be familiar to any esports fan: “Is it a sport?” Sherman says that he initially responded in a way that is also familiar, telling them that the name isn’t important, that the only thing that matters is esports’ appeal as compelling competitive entertainment.

He then goes on to say that, recently, he’s reconsidered this approach. That the “powers that be are resistant as ever to change and innovation, choosing stagnation and old practices for the sake of ease.” He suggests that his initial resistance to any change to the name “esports” was symptomatic of this industry-wide attitude. And so a change in outlook is required. A change that begins with rebranding “esports” as “new sports”.

There are some good points in the post. Sherman is right to identify that there is a problem with the way the term esports is perceived. He is right to highlight the current disconnect with sponsors. He is also right to highlight that a focus on the short term is impeding esports’ progress, with more of an emphasis of securing short-term investment than developing a positive vision for what esports can and should be. So-called ‘esports consultants’ have appeared from nowhere in a similar manner to how cryptocurrency ‘experts’ did. The goal should be an industry built by fans, for fans – right now there are far too many chancers trying to cash in on the hype.

But what does changing the name to “new sports” do to tackle any of those problems? Take the issue of obscurity, of the term esports not adequately communicating the scope of competitive gaming. What does using the adjective new instead of the prefix e do to improve the situation? If anything, it makes it worse. The letter e at least makes you think of technology, from which it isn’t hard to make the leap to gaming. The word new has none of this connotative potential. It would take some serious mental gymnastics to convince yourself esports is not an extension of gaming, yet with this new term we are invited to disconnect the two. Further, and as many industry commentators have already pointed out, what happens when ‘new sports’ aren’t new anymore? This is the plight of “new media”, which seemed like a descriptive term at the time but now loses relevance by the day as print media’s popularity and influence dwindle.

And what of the esports consultants? It’s true that they exist, and it’s true that they are irritating. But reading Sherman’s post, it’s difficult to discern exactly why it was esports’ name that gave rise to these individuals.  Would they not simply pivot to “new sports” consultations and carry on as before? There’s even a meta-point to be made, namely that Sherman’s tweet and Medium post were self-aggrandising acts themselves, drawing attention to their creator in a way that would make any esports consultant proud. It’s not for nothing that Sherman added the phrase “‘new sports’ pioneer” to his Twitter bio mere moments after launching this new terminology into the world.

But none of this is the real problem. The real problem is that this laser-focus on esports as a term completely misses the point of why fans enjoy competitive gaming so much. Whether we call it esports, competitive gaming, new sports or something else, the issue will remain that the subject is way too broad. People don’t care about esports because their focuses are typically way more narrow. This is hardly difficult to demonstrate. Compare the level of activity on the subreddit /r/esports with that of the subreddits covering specific esports scenes. Take the Competitive Overwatch subreddit, which at the time of writing has 3770 people online. /r/esports has 198.

You could apply this logic to traditional sports, even. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who describes themselves as a sports fan, certainly compared to the number who identify as tennis fans, or football fans, or basketball fans. No one is lamenting the current lack of influence of “sports” as a marketable concept. It has long been established that people’s interests are far more specific.

It’s true that the path to esports’ success lies in aligning the interests of fans and third parties. But changing the name will never achieve that. The ‘esports fan’ demographic doesn’t really exist, but the industry doesn’t need to create it to succeed. Instead, attention should be turned to identifying the kinds of content that people actually want to consume and serving those needs as well as possible.

The greatness of esports lies in specifics, not in generalities. Taking a helicopter view of the industry does little to explain why fans love it so much. So, while it’s not impossible that a change of name might have some benefit, that benefit will be marginal at best. Yes, it’s important that investors understand esports’ potential for the same reasons the fans do. But to achieve that, both need to accept that what we call it doesn’t really matter.

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