When Heroes of the Dorm, a collegiate-level Heroes of the Storm tournament, made its ESPN debut in 2015, the nerd jokes and sarcastic Tweets that followed were pretty much inevitable.

Fast forward to today, esports is no laughing matter. It’s one of the fastest growing industries worldwide, with an audience of over 500 million viewers and revenue expected to hit $1.1 billion by the end of 2020. By 2023, it’s estimated that 15.5% of internet users will be watching esports events at least once a month. Esports is also a lucrative career for professional gamers and teams; in 2019, the prize pool for The International 9: Dota 2 championship was $33 million. For context, the prize pools for the 2019 NBA Championship and the 2020 PGA Championship were only $22 million and $11 million, respectively.

So, yeah. You could say esports is having a moment.

But despite the rising mainstream popularity of esports, marketing to the esports audience is far from easy. For starters, we’re talking about a fragmented, hyper-social group of consumers who span the globe and have opinions on teams like 100 Thieves, Team Liquid and Evil Geniuses. Fans can sniff out when brand partnerships aren’t in the best interest of the game, like in 2016 when fans questioned the legitimacy of Bud Light’s All-Star program which included nominees who retired from competitive play. Not to mention, the esports space is crowded. There are multiple professional teams, hundreds of annual tournaments and thousands of streamers worldwide.

This is where social—or, more specifically, social data—comes in, as esports marketers look to deepen their understanding of their target audiences and what drives fans loyalty. In this article, we’ll discuss the role social media marketing plays in the esports ecosystem and why social data is the key to success for your esports marketing strategy.

Grow your fanbase

When you understand who you’re targeting and why, you can deepen your relationship with fans and reach an entirely new group of gamers. The diehard fans playing Fortnite are not the same people playing NBA 2K—understanding what makes each group unique is key to growing your audience.

With tools like social listening, you can break down your audience by gender and age data, and tailor your strategies accordingly. You can also use listening data to pinpoint where in the world conversations around your game are taking place. League of Legends, for example, predominantly attracts players in Western Europe and Korea, with North America only accounting for 10.8% of their total player pool.

In addition to growing your existing fanbase, you can use listening data to uncover new audiences you might not have thought to reach out to. Within the Sprout listening tool, you can segment social conversations into themes to identify what other interests your target audience may have. Almost half of esports fans are interested in traditional sports like basketball, soccer and motorsports and, in recent months, we’ve seen cross-promotional efforts push traditional sports fans towards esports. NASCAR, for example, pitted its professional drivers against gamers in the first ever iRacing Pro Series and drew more than 1.3 million TV viewers for its March 29 race.

Lastly, identify key streamers with a highly engaged following to help introduce a brand new esports game using listening data. When PlayerUnknown’s Battleground (PUBG) debuted in 2017, the marketing team turned a budget of $0 into one of the most popular stand-alone battle royale games with over 400 million total players worldwide. Instead of reaching out to the most popular streamers, PUBG’s team gave mid-tier streamers exclusive access to the beta version of the game so they could provide feedback and generate hype.

Another popular esports title, Valorant, rolled out a similar strategy for its title launch earlier this year. Instead of paying streamers to promote the game, publisher Riot Games worked with the industry’s top influencers to provide gamers with exclusive viewing access to the beta version. Streamers like Pengu were given beta keys to drop to random viewers in their chats, giving fans who had both a Riot and Twitch account a first look at the game. By the time Valorant officially launched, it had racked up 470 million hours viewed on Twitch and inspired several tournaments around the globe.

Strengthen community engagement

What makes social an ideal platform for esports fans is that, like them, social is always on. The esports audience spans the entire globe, meaning the social conversation around tournaments, match ups and more never stops.

When fans aren’t watching esports matches, there’s a good chance they’re online talking about said matches, teams and players. This is an opportunity for your brand to experiment with different types of social content to see what draws the greatest engagement from your audience. With Sprout’s Premium Analytics post-performance report, you can measure the performance of your social content and double down on the content that inspires the strongest engagement.

The League of Legends European Championship (LEC) Twitter account, for example, hosts a poll for fans to vote on the player of the game.

To further keep their audience engaged and interacting with the account, LEC also hosts an interactive quiz testing fans’ knowledge of LEC trivia and memes.

Effective community management also means keeping an eye out for when problems within games arise—and players aren’t shy about letting publishers know when servers are down. While it’s helpful to receive immediate feedback from players when problems arise, the fact that esports caters to a global audience means you have to be prepared to address issues at any time of the day.

Listening data can help you stay ahead of growing problems before they spiral out of control. Consider creating listening queries for your brand with keywords like “login” or “outage” to monitor for situations like gamers unable to access their accounts or a downed server. That way, as soon as an issue arises, your team is able to address it immediately on social.

Going one step further, some publishers have established support Twitter accounts to keep an eye on gamer complaints and to share updates when servers are back online.

Find new (and relevant) partnerships

Brand sponsorships aren’t limited to NBA or NFL teams; they apply to esports teams and streamers too. But esports fans—and especially players—are picky. Relevance is key when identifying new partnerships, and quality is top of mind for any serious gamer.

Here it’s helpful to lean on listening data to uncover your audience’s interests and identify which brand partnerships make the most sense to your fanbase. Gamers, obviously, need the right equipment to perform at their best. On Twitter, Call of Duty League recently held a giveaway for a gaming headset bundle from pro-gaming equipment brand, ASTRO Gaming—a perfect match.

Another way to grow the game is by partnering with popular streamers outside of the esports ecosystem. The reason for this is two-fold: for starters, working with popular streamers not in esports generates fresh, new content for your brand. And secondly, you can tap into the unique audience an outside partner brings to the table. Steelers’ wide receiver, Juju Smith-Schuster, is an avid Fortnite player when he isn’t running routes for Ben Roethlisberger, and he attracts both gamers and football fans alike on his social profiles. In 2018, he actually moved into the widely popular FaZe Clan’s house and documented his experience on YouTube to his one million subscribers.

A more strategic approach to esports marketing

Few fans are as loyal or committed to an organization as esports fans. There’s a reason why games like Dota 2 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare average millions of players year over year.

Unlike other B2C consumers though, esports fans are incredibly niche—they stick to their preferences and belong to a global community that has its own unique culture. Connecting with this market requires in-depth knowledge of who your audience is, what they like and dislike and who they consider influential figures.

Social data empowers esports marketers to deepen their understanding of their players and leverage those insights to both strengthen their gaming community and grow their fanbase worldwide. But social listening can do more than help esports marketers better understand their audience. Listening also enables publishers to identify new market opportunities, unexpected collaborations and content inspiration to differentiate themselves from the competition. As esports marketers look to elevate their social strategies, consider the 40 unique ways listening can impact esports from community engagement to product design to live tournament events.