Power play: Tapping the passion of gamers and sports fans to engage new audiences

5 min read

Universities have blurred the boundaries between sports and gaming for years through the establishment of successful esports programs. Now, professional sports organizations are also looking for ways to bridge the divide between gaming and live sports and create more holistic fandoms.  

In an era of rapid technological advancements and changing consumer behaviors, the worlds of sports and gaming are colliding in fascinating new ways. How can game and sports industry leaders bridge the divide between the two markets, attract new audiences and find innovative ways to cater to today’s dynamic consumer landscape?

During the panel “Crossing the divide: Bridging sports fans to games,” at GamesBeat Next 2023, Nicholas Longano, CEO of Scuti asked his panel guests, “Why sports? Why games? Why now?”

“We’re all looking for new customers,” said Mario Alioto, executive vice president of business operations, San Francisco Giants. “We’re trying to create new customers and new types of fans. I don’t think anyone has cracked the code on the ‘young fan of today.’ Kids now consume everything through their phones. We in the sports business have to attract them differently. We were saying earlier that the idea of sitting passively and watching a game for nine innings, those days are gone.”

Sports used to be much more passive, but sports betting, and the engagement of the younger user has changed the vibe — it’s become much closer to the behavior of video game fans, who are actively engaged in the titles they play, and often deeply competitive. You have to meet them where they are, he added. Not a new idea, but an effective one all the same.

“We thought, if we’re going to try to sell a baseball game to someone, let’s not sell them through the baseball passion that they have, let’s sell them through other passions that they have,” he said.

Their Grateful Dead night offered fans a special ticket price and a gift, to incentivize fans to come and experience a game, and they’ve continued that tactic to draw more new attendees and sell them on the experience.

“I think we have to do more and more of that,” he said. “What our product really is, is an experience at our ballpark. You’ll find that sports fans are now engaged differently than they have been in the past, which is frankly the key reason why the timing is perfect.”

StatusPRO, which already sits at the intersection between sports and gaming, is leveraging the opportunities offered by a new generation of potential fans — the younger audience that most leagues are chasing, said Troy Jones, CEO of StatusPRO. “When we thought about VR and this emerging category, we thought, what do fans ultimately want? They want to feel connected to their sport, to their team. They want to know what it’s like to be their favorite athlete across any sport. This idea of being able to bring that to life through a VR experience and offer a different way to engage with the sport was something that we thought was unique, something that could offer fans a different experience that would make them willing to spend their free time in.”

Obviously sports fans don’t just play sports games, but it’s a new way to target sporting enthusiasts and get them into gaming, Longano agreed. Where platforms like Scuti come into play is that those sports fans earn reward points on sporting sites, and start looking for games in which to spend them.

“The number-one activity for Gen Z and Gen Alpha is gaming,” added Ceo Wimmer, partner and head of revenue at Rally Cry. “If you look at any athlete coming up in sports, they all play video games in their off time. That’s their number one-activity. There’s a huge crossover. If you’re any kind of marketer and you’re trying to drive more people to your game, they’re a great influencer tie-in. Every gamer wants to be an athlete, or wanted to be an athlete at some point. Every athlete wants to be a gamer.”

And it’s more than just the brand, Alioto said — today, sports teams are putting the personalities of their players front and center, which helps give fans a greater sense of connection.

Incentivizing sports fans to become new gamers

“Sports fans are the perfect consumers for the gaming industry,” Longano said. “The only thing that we need to provide them is the incentive to want to play your games. You’re surrounded by thousands, or in the case of mobile, millions of other games. You have to stand out, and that’s not an easy task. If there is a platform that can acquire those users and bring them to your game, you’re halfway there. Now you just have to retain them and hope they like your game.”

Your key goal is to give your target a reason they should care about the product, Alioto says. Incentivizing people can mean rewards or even the ability to test drive the product before they make the decision to buy.

The recent Verizon-sponsored rewards programmed in League of Legends have outperformed all previous efforts, Wimmer pointed out.

“Rewards are special. It’s how you keep the customer coming back, how you keep them loyal,” he said. “Their highest engagement rates — they were getting these massive spikes because they were giving key items inside of the game, extra things through the Verizon app if you had it, or through your Verizon service. It delivered higher than anything they’d ever had before.”

Connecting the game and sports worlds isn’t about regurgitating the same players across the ecosystem, the way game companies traditionally shuffle their players through their titles and across platforms.

“We want new users. New users help an entire ecosystem grow,” Longano said. “If you’re getting more sports fans, you bring them into the gaming ecosystem, they’re going to spend, but they’re more likely to spend if you give them their first incentive. Get them over the line to understand what an in-app purchase means to the game experience and how it can help them level up. If you have a good game that has rewards, that accepts rewards in order to convert to in-app purchases, you’re going to convert more players. That’s a fact.”

It’s also about capturing the emotion of the sports world, Jone said.

“Sports fans are passionate. That’s what it comes down to,” he said. “They all care for different reasons. If you can extract whatever characteristics from a specific player and offer that to them in a game in a variety of ways and be innovative, you can take advantage of it. The NFL has created a whole new fanbase overnight in the last three weeks because Travis Kelce is dating the biggest pop star in the world. Now their demographic of young women has increased a hundredfold. If you can tap into that, it’s amazing.”


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