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Esports has come a long way from amateur tournaments in the organizers' basements with the prize funds of 'nicely done's' to stadiums full of people and millions of dollars at stake. There are many reasons for this development, both simple and consisting of many circumstances. But the fans have always remained constant, a special factor X. Without the fans' support and a loyal audience that is ready to watch games, esports would not have reached the heights at which it floats now.
The culture of rooting in esports differs significantly from that of traditional sports. The main difference is the lack of local teams. In sports, a person born in London can start rooting for Chelsea, a Catalan for Barcelona, a Texan for the Rockets, a Montreal for the Canadiens — for the simple reason that these are clubs from one area or city. Alas, there is no such luxury in esports. The Overwatch League and Call of Duty League, among others, have made attempts to distribute teams across cities to attract local audiences, but it's unlikely that anyone in Minneapolis will root for RØKKR simply because there is a CoD team there. This is not an endemic club; it is an invasive planting. In esports, people mostly root for the players, not for the clan tag, especially such a new one that does not say anything about itself.
However, deep into more than twenty years of the industry's history, there are clubs who have won the fans' loyalty and have supporters by the name of the organization. NAVI, Virtus.pro, Fnatic, Team SoloMid, Cloud9, G2 Esports, Team Liquid are organizations that are followed across rosters and disciplines.
Not surprisingly, one of these teams decided to implement a loyalty program for fans. They understand that it is not enough just to exist in a single game, produce merchandise, and sell it: the fans need to be thanked and encouraged.
There are many different opinions on whether esports should emulate traditional sports, and if so, how much. If we take anything as an example, its the relationship between clubs and fans. The Liquid+ program has its roots in sports. CEO Steve Arhancet told Inven Global how the idea came about, and Venturebeat said it took eighteen months to develop and was advised by Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis.
It was actually at one of the LCS tailgates that we used to do in person, where we were in the parking lot and we had those setups and stuff. There was this young woman there who saw me, and I could tell she recognized me. You could see that she was so excited, and she walked over and was shaking and said, "Oh my god, I can't believe I'm meeting you Steve, this is amazing. I've been a fan for so long! I followed you through Curse, I watched you play Soraka, I watched the LMQ match, and I've been supporting the org," and on and on.
And so I just thanked her and gave her a hug, but after that, I thought to myself, "Wow. I feel like an asshole. I had no idea who she was." She's buying merch, watching our players, subscribed to our Twitch channels, coming to the matches, cheering us on all geared out in TL stuff, and I just had no idea.
Team Liquid started modestly with a program's beta test for five hundred people. Liquid+ perks will include exclusive gifts, the ability to contact players and team management, and VIP access to various activations. This is a good start. But organizations can and should go even further.
An excellent example can be noticed in the NBA league and its individual teams. The Chicago Bulls loyalty program does not imply pre-registration in the team's fan club, but every ticket buyer for any match, as well as season ticket holders, automatically becomes a participant in a various prizes giveaway, ranging from the official store discounts to dinner with team leaders or watching the match from the presidential penthouse together with the owner. The association itself periodically gives away tickets for the All-Stars matches and the finals of both conferences and the entire league.
Buffalo Sabers Hockey Club has included sponsor integration into its Sabers Fan Advantage program. The fans can earn points not only by purchasing tickets and merchandise but also by purchasing goods and services from numerous partners. Simple and basic things like banking transactions, phone calls, and buying a can of soda are beneficial.
Chelsea Football Club awards points to regular ticket buyers and then rewards those with a certain number of points with better seats and even free season tickets, thus encouraging fans to attend the team's home games.
Anaheim Ducks decided to take a different path and created a loyalty program that guarantees value but requires a season pass holder and active attendance to participate. Fans will accumulate points to get autographed merchandise, meet players, and even ride a circle around the arena on the Zamboni Ice Resurfacer.
Of course, not all of these options are suitable for esports in general and for individual teams in particular. But, of course, they can be adapted.
A common thing is sponsored activations. For example, 100Thieves gave away thousands of dollars through their sponsor Cash App. Spontaneous giveaways are, of course, a good option to attract a short-term audience, but tying such promotions to a loyalty program or fan club will have a much more tangible effect. Points accumulation can be monitored through barcode registrations from team match tickets, or through social media integration.
Long-term programs can prevent spectator turnover in esports. Boston Red Sox baseball club reported that the loyalty accumulation system had a positive effect on fan behavior at the stadium and increased attendance. The peculiarity of esports, in general, is that viewers are rarely fans of only one particular discipline and watch several games at once. Their attention is scattered; they can simultaneously be fans of NAVI CS:GO's s1mple and Virtus.pro Dota 2's Solo. Let's imagine Fnatic afford to give away an exclusive branded FNATIC x GUCCI watch between the fans who have watched all the League of Legends and CS:GO matches for a year. OG can organize a practice session with N0tail for the lucky five who left the most likes on the club's Twitter posts. Dinner with MATUMBAMAN for the fan who bought the most Team Secret merchandise—sounds incredible.
The teams don't even need to take it all on themselves. You can partner with tournament organizers who will show bonus codes for the loyalty program during team matches. You set up an agreement with the developers and provide in-game items or currency in the corresponding games for these points. Imagine getting a Team Nigma exclusive cosmetic simply for being their loyal fan. Isn't that happiness?
At the same time, the organizations must be careful not to overdo: no one likes it when someone tries to bribe them. In no case should you make a paid fan club or hide any items behind a paywall.
It would be naive to expect that all clubs in all disciplines will immediately follow Team Liquid's example and organize fully working loyalty programs. But the industry is fortunate that the first sign (at least on this scale) is a leading organization with millions of fans around the world. Perhaps the success of Liquid+ venture will provide the very impetus that will take the relationship of esports organizations with their fans to a whole new level.