Understanding the esports audience: The data deficit

For sports brands, fan engagement is life-giving. For investors, engaged fans are alluring.

And everybody knows it. The need for engagement in sport is never undersold. It is the motor that breathes oxygen into a company’s operations.

But in 2021, is fan engagement the most important thing? Do brands even know who they’re reaching?

The quest for digital data: esports’ challenge

“In traditional sports, companies are focused on the engagement side. Initiatives are all focused on creating engagement. They’re spending so much on engagement, but that isn’t the problem. Sports fans are a highly engaged group. The problem is that they don’t know who they are engaging.”

That’s Asaf Nevo, Founder and CEO of Pico Get Personal. Speaking to him was a breath of fresh air. His intelligence is electric — the kind that becomes obvious the moment a person opens their mouth. Besides the perils of lockdown in our respective homes — his in Haifa, Israel, mine in Manchester, England — we spoke about the problem that, according to him, his company is solving.

“The problem is that they don’t know who they are engaging”

Pictured: Asaf Nevo, Pico CEO

“There are two types of fans in sport. One is someone that has bought something. This person has been entered into a database. We have a lot of information about these fans. The second type is the digital fan. Companies usually don’t have records of this type of person … Brands are starting to realise that for the millions on the digital space, they have no idea who they are.

“I’ll use a couple of examples. Think of Bayern Munich: they have about eight million fans in their database. Chelsea have about 11 million. Both of these are global brands, and both have hundreds of millions of digital fans. So the capitalisation of fanbases in sports is very low. Data is tied to engagement, but these companies get data only from transactions. Pico helps companies reach and understand digital fans.”

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Interesting. So brands do not know who they are engaging in the digital sphere. Fans that buy merch, enter competitions, have season tickets: we know plenty about those people, because they willingly hand over actionable data — data that is plugged into customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP). But according to Nevo, that portion accounts for less than 10 percent of a brand’s total audience.

Knowing the esports audience

Pico has worked with teams in the Bundesliga (Borussia Dortmund and Werder Bremen), NBA (Philadelphia 76ers), and EuroLeague (Maccabi Tel Aviv), among many others. In December the company entered esports, partnering with Level Next, an EA-backed collegiate esports league in the US. Pico is responsible for — you guessed it — gathering data on the digital audience. As well as driving engagement, naturally.

Pico Platform
Pico’s data-driven marketing in action. Credit: Pico

The company uses its technology to turn blank silhouettes into identifiable fans. It does this through digital activations — usually through social media sites it knows audiences will engage with. This includes Twitter direct message, Facebook Messenger, and more recently, Twitch.

But what can Pico reveal about this mystical band of digital natives? And why is it so valuable for brands? Well, it can help procure fruitful sponsorship.

“Esports has the biggest problem out of all of them”

Nevo illuminates this with an example. “Uber is big on sponsoring sports in the US. So [hypothetically] we would ask fans, ‘which form of transportation do you use to get to matches?’ Then, we’d use that to provide a report to the sponsorship department; 35% of people are getting taxis to matches, for example. [The sports brand] can go back to Uber and say, ‘we know there is a high probability fans will use Uber if you provide them with a good discount’. Most people will use Uber because it’s a cheaper method.”

By understanding the preferences of online fans, Pico helps brands monetise thicker chunks of their audiences. 100 Thieves — to use a fictional example — might want to know which fast-food chain their fans prefer. They might ask Pico to poll 100T fans — through Twitch — on their go-to fast-food spot. Let’s say Shake Shack wins. 100 Thieves could then go to Shake Shack and be better positioned to pitch a lucrative, mutually beneficial deal. The level of guesswork in choosing partners is minimised; orgs know what their audiences want.

One of Pico’s digital activations for Portugal’s national football team. Credit: Pico

“Esports has the biggest problem out of all [sports] … Who are [the digital fans]? What are their preferences? Which sponsors could be relevant? They have no idea if these sponsors are relevant for [their] audience. You’re testing; it’s trial and error. One of the things we’re doing is trying to create situations where streamers have a database of who viewers are.

“Borussia Dortmund started streaming on Twitch, and in six months became the biggest sports company on the platform. They started to show non-Bundesliga content: practice, the women’s league, and so on … Werder Bremen streamed their Bundesliga match against Dortmund, and there were 350,000 people watching. They’re all anonymous. Pico’s mission is to understand who these people are.”

It’s blindingly obvious, then, why the esports and gaming market is attractive to Pico. By definition, there are no non-digital esports fans. Competition is always shown online through streaming platforms. One must be at least digitally competent to even access esports — something that is not true of traditional sports. The entire esports landscape is fair game, and for data-driven marketing brands, its volcanic soil is as fertile as Pompeii’s.

“Monetisation is the number-one golden nugget everyone wants. Our whole marketing idea is on monetisation. But it doesn’t always come first; you have to build something to monetise. What we’re helping companies do is take a more data-driven approach, starting to make rational decisions on how to make money. That’s the idea.”

Pico’s vision for esports

In esports, swathes of untapped viewers lie waiting to be transcribed and quantified. “I think the lack of data is the first problem. [Esports companies] currently have a very basic approach,” Nevo said.

“I think the whole ‘building strategy around new data’ excites us — like we have done in [traditional] sports. Using data to develop strategy — sponsorship strategy — is exciting. Which sponsors are more relevant to a brand’s audience? Which platforms are best for engagement?”

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Nevo was, while unwilling to spoil any surprises, clear with his intentions in esports. When asked about working with more companies he said: “That’s the goal. That’s the market we’re approaching, absolutely.” And when asked about deals in the pipeline he said: “Quite a lot, actually. Some involve sports clubs, some are big esports groups. Obviously I can’t share too much with you right now, but rest assured, we will let you know when we can.”

Pico is an exciting company with a compelling proposition. The esports industry might benefit from its pollination; goodness knows esports teams and TOs usually don’t turn a profit, and better data about a largely unearthed fanbase might guide the industry towards gold. The marriage of esports to, not just fan-engaging but fan-revealing initiatives — with the help of companies like Pico — might just help the industry monetise more effectively. 

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