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August 26, 2019

How Esports Is A Window To Innovation (And How I Became A Cool Dad For A Day)

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By Alex Gonzalez, Chief Innovation Officer, Metro Atlanta Chamber

Your kids are sometimes the best focus group.

As a parent, it’s easy to forget that your kids are a great bridge to understanding the trends that are being shaped by a new generation. One Saturday this summer, I took my 14-year-old to an esports event hosted by our local Atlanta Reign Overwatch League team, and it was a revealing window into the future. The fact that it was also an amazing day with my son was the true treasure.

Gaming and esports are bigger than you think. Reuters estimates 2019 global esports revenue to top $1.1 billion. Even if you are not a gamer (and I don’t consider myself to be one), you need to recognize the material impact gaming is having on business, consumer behavior and innovation. Gaming — with esports being the major public expression of the medium — is a convergence of technology, entertainment, branding and consumer behavior. Gaming is more than the “game.” It is about social connection, competition, brand loyalty, celebrity and commerce, and if you don’t understand it, you (and your business) will be antiquated.

A quick disclaimer: this piece will not offer a position on the debate of whether you should let your kid become a gamer or let them have more screen time. I will leave that to the parenting blogs! This is about understanding the exponential growth of an industry and how it is a window into innovation.

As a product of Generation X, I have had a front row seat to the gaming (r)evolution starting with my first console, the Atari 2600. Back then, state of the art games like PAC-MAN, Missile Command and Asteroids (and yes, even Pong) captured my imagination. By the time I was 15 in 1985, video games were evolving with new, more powerful game systems. At the time, Nintendo was launching seemingly limitless intellectual properties (Super Mario Bros., the Legend of Zelda, Metroid, etc.) that would go on to become gaming’s iconographic touchstones decades later. These developments were simply the beginning.

I would reencounter gaming later as I became hooked again as a father of young boys, and video games became a family activity (remember the Nintendo Wii?). As my children got older, the games became more sophisticated, competitive and fast. When I realized my teen and young adult kids were playing games with me out of sympathy (and changing my settings to beginner mode), I retired from gaming (although I may sneak in a quick game of FIFA or NBA2K to remember the “good old days”).

While I no longer actively play these games, I have grown in appreciation of the impact and innovation of this growing ecosystem. It is also a real, live case study of innovation in action and how generational consumer habits (think Generation Z) will shape the way consumers behave and how businesses will market.

Gaming and esports is already a major presence in traditional business. You may have read about the ecosystem in publications like Fast Company and the Wall Street Journal. Just within my hometown of Atlanta, gaming and esports have merged with all aspects of the community: from fast-growing emerging companies like Hi-Rez Studios/Skillshot, to major media companies like Warner Media/Turner Studios and also encompassing some of our largest companies like Cox Enterprises. All these entities and many more are making major investments in esports.

I really got it when I attended my first esports event with my 14-year-old on that Saturday this summer. I never thought I would go to a venue to watch other people play video games, but my son was just as excited to go to this as with any other major sporting event. It did not take long to find out why as we arrived to the sold-out Atlanta Reign Homestand Weekend.

Atlanta Reign is our local Overwatch team (owned by Cox Enterprises), and they were hosting teams from all over the world — Shanghai, Guangzhou, Toronto, New York, etc. Overwatch is a competitive, team-based game played by some 40 million people worldwide as of May 2018. Upon entering the Homestand venue there was everything you would expect from a big-time sports event. A host of major sponsors activated there with everything from promotional giveaways to exclusive VIP lounges. Merchandise sold briskly. There was a major media presence and teams had post game press conferences. The event had its own on-air personalities as it broadcast live to streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube. The featured game with the Atlanta Reign that afternoon was broadcast on the ABC TV network. Yes… that ABC.

I was in awe by the authentic energy and engagement of the fans. They cheered with excitement and were invested in each play with passion. I understood then that it did not matter that I could only just keep up with the action on screen — the experience was incredibly compelling, and the fans — the consumers — understood every nuance.

If you are an innovator, strategist or leader seeking ways to shape the future and lead innovation within your organization or the broader community, you need to pay attention to esports and gaming. Even if you never will interact with this industry, it is a great analog for any business to see innovation in action. You will witness the collision of tech and creative yielding authentic experiences. You will see how digital platforms create a crop of new celebrities and brands that bypass traditional media yet reach straight to the consumer, no matter their physical location. It is a way to see how Gen Z will behave as a consumer… a generation that is growing up immersed in a digital reality. You will also see how traditional brands engage with the new economy.

If you are a marketer or strategist, especially in a consumer company, you need to do more than observe. Now is the time to shape the market and innovate on how you want to reach consumers, instead of chasing the movement when the new norms take hold. Engage with gaming. Engage with esports.

Innovators should be comfortable with not being comfortable. We need to embrace the new, even when the new is not what we are comfortable with. Seek out new experiences and cross generations to understand the nuances of the future ahead. Find excuses to experience things you don’t know. Make sure esports and gaming is more than just something your kids do and something that you learn from.

For me, my kids are always my best focus group. I am so happy I went to that Atlanta Reign event. It transformed some theories I had into confirmed reality and opened the doors to new paths for me to explore.

It also made me the “cool dad,” even if just for a few hours.

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