Gaming Bits with Holly Crook, Senior Partnerships Manager at BLAST

Welcome back to the Gaming Bits by Replai! A series of short interviews with leaders discussing the present and future of gaming and esports, opportunities around the corner and how can industry participants play a significant role on its expansion. Want to add to the discussion or know someone whose input you’d really want to see featured on this series? Email at diogo.pereira@replai.io

We are joined today by Holly Crook, Senior Partnerships Manager at BLAST. Her career brought Holly from working with worldwide established brands such as McDonald’s and the Hilton Hotels into the world of Esports. In our talk we learn how did this transition feel, how the activation and management of partnerships are different within the gaming industry (what they can teach & learn to other market segments) and a small guide to brands wanting to jump into esports and gaming as a way to promote their products. 

“(...) if you want to push your brand to the forefront of technology, and what can be a very difficult audience to authentically engage with, there is no better space to be flexible and accessible to all.”

You've been handling brand and sponsor partnerships for most of your career but BLAST has been your debut in the esports industry. How has the experience been? What differences and similarities have you found regarding other industries – and what can esports learn from them?

There are definitely a lot of similarities between approaching and activating partnerships across traditional sport and entertainment and esports, however the fundamental difference that I have noticed is the availability of using players, talent and teams as part of these activations. At BLAST, we endeavour to make our campaigns as authentic as possible, and make sure they resonate with the audience and, especially, the fans of the scene. It is very easy to be called out within esports for not putting the fans first, which in traditional sports definitely wasn't the main focus behind a campaign. It's been an adjustment for sure! 

Whilst we obtain a great output at shows through media days, content execution and the engagement of players at our events, we are always working together to evolve and undesrtand the growing commercial value of esports as an industry. This comes from education and realising that esports is now a lot bigger than simply a hobby or Reddit threads. There are now expectations of the industry and the people within it, and I think there is some further growth on that front from all involved.

Esports casters

The context of covid-19 has reminded media companies and brands that there remains an addressable market of highly engaged consumers for esports. How to keep this acceleration sustainable into the future? Do you feel esports have matured their potential as a return-generating entertainment platform for brands and sponsors? 

The great thing about esports is that it is a landscape that keeps on evolving, whilst also is able to keep going as long as we have a thriving online community. We have seen through moving our shows from our usual atmospheric arena events to online during Covid-19, that we have continued to grow our audience while other entertainment brands and traditional sports have had to scale back, which is a great indication of the appeal of esports as a whole - and there is a huge opportunity for brands who choose to partner with us to reach that audience. Whilst we at BLAST produce shows predominantly in CS:GO and DOTA 2 at present, the options and capacity for growth as an entertainment package is almost limitless. With technology ever evolving, we are able to adapt and shape our output to what is available to us at that specific time.

As an industry, esports is in a rapid climb, with a lot of big name brands now entering the space, or looking to esports as something that has proven itself sustainable despite what is happening in the outside world. If a brand were to compare the output and reliability of esports versus that of traditional sport and entertainment, I believe there would be a greater appreciation of partnership outcomes in the esports space. We read about large scale football partnerships in the multi-millions. We have similar major partnerships at BLAST but then have also delivered incredible value for brands with a smaller budget - we make sure in either case the benefit far outweighs the ROI obtained from a traditional partnership with the same cost.

"We want people to have the very best time with us and our shows, be that online or offline, and we are learning new ways to adapt daily to meet and exceed our partner needs."

How did you find the process of adapting from offline to online events to have impacted the management of partnerships? How were you able to transition successfully to a paradigm where events, usually big showcases for partners in arenas, are now majorly done through streaming and online initiatives?

Esports is a digital product - so even though we were online - we created incredible content, competitions and activations with all of our partners that brought them as close to the fans as possible, despite not having a physical arena. We were able to increase our broadcast hours, thereby increasing brand exposure, delivering a record 65 partner content pieces that went out into broadcast across our three June shows, and served a bigger online audience globally - even breaking records with our Brazilian streamer Gaules!

I think the main thing that has been challenging is not being able to personally meet some of the clients we are working with due to the travel restrictions. I'm a big fan of face-to-face meetings, as I always find them the best environment to scope and ideate. Whilst the world is becoming more used to this video conferencing way of life, we have had to adapt not only our personal approach to our clients, but our output too. For example, content ideas that we were coming up with at the beginning of the year, had to be adapted to include players and teams who wouldn't physically be with us to film. We couldn't use high specification recording equipment, and so we needed to navigate the best output methods that we were able to achieve with each of us being in our own homes.

BLAST is well known and respected in the industry for our high quality broadcast production, and ensuring that our partner outputs maintained this was essential for the show to seamlessly slot together. We also had to review some of the usual partner deliverables, and how we could tweak them into this online world. For example, our audio partners EPOS sent headsets to all of our talent to wear on the broadcast, ensuring we still got their product placement, whilst also creating a slick, unified look across all of our talent thanks to their generosity. 

Experiential spaces are still going to be very important moving forward into the post-Covid-19 world, and we will be looking at how we can meet all local government guidelines around safety once we are able to be back in arenas, to ensure that those experiences are a credit to both our partners, and BLAST as an organisation. We want people to have the very best time with us and our shows, be that online or offline, and we are learning new ways to adapt daily to meet and exceed our partner needs.

Whilst we were all remote - we tried to work with our sponsors to bring the fans as close to our show, the action and their heroes as possible, which gave them a lot of appreciation.

BLAST tournament

BLAST announces regularly exciting partnerships these ranging from traditional markets associated with gaming like accessory and streaming brands, to consumer goods venturing into esports for the very first time. What advice do you have for brands looking towards participating in esports, and how can they avoid pitfalls of this ‘gold rush’?

What is key within the esports landscape, is that fans are at the very centre of every team, game, and tournament. We see a lot of brand objectives from prospects that involve audience engagement and increasing brand recall within that specific audience, and there is no better platform if you partner with the right organisation and deliver a really authentic activation and campaign where the fans are at the heart of it.

Whilst there will always be space for endemic brands to enter the esports space, we are seeing more non-endemic brands take the leap, and the rewards are being gained. We recently did an activation with KitKat, the first that BLAST has done with Nestle, and the reception from the audience was massive! KitKat was the talk of BLAST Bounty Hunt - on stream, in the chat, on socials - and there is still so much more that we could do with these non-endemics that hasn't been tapped into yet.

My main piece of advice would be to be open minded, and trust in the process. A very classic partnership saying! But it couldn't be more true. There is so much still to learn in esports, and if you want to push your brand to the forefront of technology, and what can be a very difficult audience to authentically engage with, there is no better space to be flexible and accessible to all. As long as brands remain patient and dedicate time and resource to understanding the esports community - long and fruitful partnerships will be enjoyed by those who are willing to make this leap into an exciting industry. We have been very proud so many brands have chosen us to do that with - and I'm looking forward to many more partners in the future!

That's it for the sixth edition of the Gaming Bits by Replai.io! See you next time.