Counter-Strike News Esports meets mainstream: Advertising cars to esports fans

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Over the past year or so, we’ve seen an uptick the number of car companies getting involved in esports. Audi is sponsoring Astralis, Subaru is sponsoring a CS:GO tournament, Honda sponsored last year’s Red Bull Hearthstone Team Brawl, and they’re just the bigger names. Car companies are driving into esports, but it remains to be seen if their advertising efforts really make sense in the esports landscape.

The furthest back esports car sponsorship I can remember is EVO 2007’s Yaris sponsorship. At the time, Toyota was pushing the Yaris pretty hard on Gen X consumers, and they even released a (terrible) free Xbox 360 game as part of their campaign. 2007 is long before esports were a big deal in the West, but EVO had a custom Yaris on display that year in the main tournament room, with Toyota branding all over the event space. They also required EVO run a racing game tournament that year, which means it’s the only year you could have been a Mario Kart DS EVO Champion.

After that, car brands’ involvement with esports went dormant for a while. In a certain light, sponsoring EVO made sense, since fighting games generally capture a slightly older audience than the esports titles that came afterwards. Over the next five or six years, esports shifted to a younger crowd with games like League of Legends and it’s not that LoL fans don’t like cars, it’s that they’re usually too young to buy them.

That problem right there presents the biggest question about car brands advertising through esports teams and tournaments. Why are companies like Audi, Subaru, Nissan and Ford advertising a market that is primarily not interested in cars?

For one, millennials (esports’ largest demographic according to Newzoo reports) might not be as against the concept of owning a car as conventional wisdom says they should be. However, that comes down to your definition of “millennial,” a loose and slippery term used mostly by people who want to sell you a crate of dog treats they mail to you each month. According to a 2015 study by J.D. Power and Associates, millennials bought 27 percent of new cars in the US and the number is rising. The problem is that J.D. Power feels that millennials are people born between 1977 and 1994, which doesn’t fit any other definition of the term.

The U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, on the other hand, states that people under the age of 25 spend the least amount of money on new car purchases of any age group in the country. So, millennials don’t buy cars, even though car companies want you to think they do, and yet the car companies are continuing to advertise directly to an audience that, statistically speaking, isn’t interested in them.

It’s hard to say exactly why that’s happening. One one hand, it’s possible that car companies are just that desperate to make younger consumers aware of their brand. Going by those numbers from the Bureau of Labour Statistics, the people spending the most on new cars are between the ages of 45-54, which means that the traditional car-buying audience is dying out, so the manufacturers have to get young people on board early.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that car companies and their marketing firms understand that they are spectacularly large fish in a tiny media puddle. Non-endemic brands are a big deal whenever they enter esports, especially when they do it with a little fanfare. Earlier this month, Astralis put out a press release stating that “millions” saw Astralis’ Audi campaign. It got people talking, and whether or not it sold cars, it proved that people pay attention when car companies get involved in esports.

But, this all comes back to the fact that ads are about selling a product. An ad has failed if I’m not coming out of it interested in buying what it’s selling to me. Brand awareness is a big deal, that’s why Coca Cola keeps putting out ads even though they’re the most popular soda in the world, but these car companies haven’t reached market saturation, especially not within esports. I’ll go buy a Razer mouse because they sponsored my favorite team, but I’m probably not going to drop $43,800 on an Audi Q2 just because they sponsored Astralis, no matter how big a deal it is that they care about esports.

CS:GO has been the focus for car companies lately, between Audi and Astralis and Subaru’s upcoming NA CS:GO tournament, and that makes sense in the way that sponsoring EVO made sense for Toyota back in 2007. CS:GO trends a little older than LoL, but it’s still hard to see why they would suddenly become car purchasers, given that not buying cars isn’t an esports thing, it’s a millennial thing strengthened by the rise of ride-share services like Uber and a tough job market.

Marketing to esports fans isn’t going to suddenly change any minds about purchasing a car, but it certainly will make the recognition-starved esports audience more positive towards that brand. I’m not sure why Audi, Subaru, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai are here, but they're clearly here for a reason. I just don’t know if it’s a good enough one to get me to buy a luxury car instead of a better computer.

Grade B- — Car companies haven’t done anything wrong in esports. They’ve just sort of existed. Facilitating tournaments for games that fit their market and partnering with strong teams is only good, it’s just a little baffling considering those teams and markets are still less likely to buy a car in the first place. I don’t know that Audi can brute force 20-somethings into purchasing cars by sponsoring Astralis.

Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.

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