Food & drink brands targeting esports & gaming market
By Damien Martin
Michael Jordan glides toward the basket for a dunk. Next, he’s on the bench drinking a Gatorade and laughing. Amateur players on their local basketball courts try to imitate his moves. “Be Like Mike” was an iconic commercial of the 90s. The jingle probably got stuck in your head. It spawned a bad movie starring Lil’ Bow Wow. Jordan and Gatorade made a lot of money together. Both built global brands.
In the digital age, just about everybody is an influencer, and there are more platforms to reach an audience. Whereas you could be like Mike in video games by playing as him, today the gamers themselves are stars. Esports has become a billion-dollar industry, with TV deals for competitions such as Overwatch League, which inked contracts with Turner networks and ESPN that even landed broadcasts on ABC. In 2017, millions of people tuned in to watch gamers play “Candy Crush Saga” on CBS. When mainstream sports competitions were on hold because of the pandemic, the already growing esports scene rushed in to take advantage. There were even broadcasts of athletes competing against each other in video game versions of their sports.
Millions more tune in to livestreams of their favorite gamers on Twitch and YouTube. All that attention, especially from key demographics, attracts sponsors. So much that in 2019, about $456 million of the $1.1 billion esports leagues’ revenue came from sponsorships. Like Gatorade in 1991, food and drink companies are trying to win hearts and minds with esports advertising.
It’s almost a perfect opportunity for product placement. There are plenty of sideline shots of players drinking sports drinks and eating energy bars, and the Gatorade bath for a winning coach is an integral part of football culture, but athletes can’t actively eat or drink during live play. Gamers on the other hand, can. Picture playing video games in your mind, and invariably there’s eating and drinking going on. In a “Seinfeld” episode, the right amount of pizza grease on the joystick was a key part of George Costanza’s “Frogger” success.
Gamers tend to play in marathon sessions, so their nutritional needs are somewhat different from traditional athletes’, though there are a lot of similarities. Energy drinks are big, and gamers also need focus, hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes, and reliable memories. With so many hours in front of screens, eye health is critical.
That’s where Zenni made its entrance into the esports market. After striking partnerships with Golden Guardians and Lux Gaming, the direct-to-consumer brand became the official eyewear of the Houston Outlaws and Pittsburgh Knights teams last year. Zenni is now the official eyewear of the Call of Duty League, with official styles in the works. The company markets its Blokz blue light glasses specifically to gamers with the tagline “Play longer. Play stronger.”
The biggest slice of the market is in energy drinks. GFuel has been on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies for five years running. It came on the scene in 2012 specifically for gamers and has registered the phrase “the official drink of esports.” “Whether you’re a casual gamer, a content creator, an everyday Joe, or an esports pro, G FUEL’s sugar-free, antioxidant and vitamin-fortified, focus-enhancing, and high-performance energy products will give you the edge you need to fuel your grind,” its website advertises.
Five years before GFuel, Mountain Dew developed Game Fuel as “the first beverage designed just for gamers.” Back in 2007, it was a limited-time promotional drink to go along with the release of Halo 3 for Xbox 360. It has since evolved to be truly designed for consumption while gaming, with “resealable tech to keep it fresh and your hardware dry.” The can’s textured surface makes for a “tactile grip,” and caffeine and theanine promote “accuracy & alertness.” It’s no longer just a soda to drink while you play video games. It’s an edge developed hand-in-hand with top pros and elite amateurs to beat out the competition.
As esports has become a bigger, more serious deal, so have the products marketed to gamers. There are chewing gums, performance gels, even supplements aimed at boosting gamers’ performance.
Just as Mountain Dew (now MTN DEW) and similar brands cornered a niche market in extreme sports a generation ago, they see an opportunity in gaming and esports to both embrace hip counterculture and reach a large audience. About 3 billion people worldwide play video games, and about a third of that number watches esports. In the US, about 40% of viewers are in the coveted 25-34 demographic with a median age. They’re young and they grew up online, but they also have their own income. These aren’t all the stereotypical lone teenage or college-aged males. A significant percentage of gaming enthusiasts are raising young future gamers and consumers of their own.
Most importantly, these gamers are eating and drinking while playing. Rates differ by world region, but a whopping 80% of gamers say they consume food and beverages during play. While they might not have the skills of Johan Sundstein (aka N0tail) just as Gatorade drinkers 30 years ago weren’t as good at basketball as Michael Jordan, they can eat and drink the same things as their favorite gamers.
More than 30 million households in the US don’t have pay TV, a number that has risen significantly during the pandemic. Traditional sports, long a bastion of advertisers looking for young consumers captivated by a live event, have seen ratings declines on pace with an overall drop in cable viewership. Even the Super Bowl, year-in and year-out the highest rated TV program, is losing the 18-49 demographic. The numbers are a bit misleading. Nielsen data won’t account for streaming totals until 2024. While the amount of TV viewers under 50 watching the Super Bowl has dropped each of the last 10 years, the streaming numbers are growing each year. Almost 6 million people in that age range streamed this year’s contest.
The audience brands want lives online now. They stream shows there. They watch game streams there. They play video games there. It’s more fragmented, so brands need to expand their focus to a variety of platforms. It’s also more interactive. Rather than just sitting back and watching, people are gaming while watching, or picking up tips to incorporate into their own sessions. That’s even reflecting in the food and beverage products made for them.
One thing remains the same: Brands are associating themselves with a lifestyle. Today, instead of Be Like Mike, it’s Be Like Ninja.