Is eSports replacing traditional sports for military recruiting?

By Tom Aiello

When the topic of Electronic sports (eSports) is brought up, you might picture a group of friends gathered in the basement playing Xbox, PlayStation or some new online game. But that could not be further from reality. eSports is a unique competitive and cultural phenomenon where online viewers watch professional gamers compete worldwide. Professional eSports competition has become big business with live, in-person and remotely hosted events having prize money and engaged viewers in the millions.

In a recent survey, 38% of young Americans identified themselves as fans of competitive gaming, which is nearly the same as the 40% who said they were NFL fans. eSports and pro-football, and for that matter, most mainstream sports, are similar in that they are funded largely through advertising and sponsorships. They both have droves of fans who elevate top competitors to celebrity status. Where the two differ is in the approach they take in engagement with their fans.

Tradition sports athletes generally maintain a traditional relationship with their fans focusing on handshakes and autographs at games and the like. eSports professional “gamers” take fan nurturing to the next level. They build deeper rapport with fans through more interactions including creation and delivery of rich content and personal dialogue delivered often through daily engagement. As the popularity of eSports has exploded, it’s overtaking traditional sports as the pastime potential military recruiting prospects reliably follow. In fact, eSports now boasts a 60% larger audience of engaged, military propensed young adult than NASCAR.

The popularity of eSports and drone racing

eSports competitions are generating prize money and bigger audiences. These prize pools can now eclipse those for some of the biggest events in traditional sports. For example, the prize pool of the 2017 eSports Confirmations Cup totaled $20,000,000 as compared to the NBA Championship that year at $13,000,000.

More impressively, global audiences for some of the major eSport competitions can surpass 100 million viewers which rivals the viewership of the Super Bowl. In 2017, there were an estimated 335 million esports fans worldwide, a number that is estimated to grow to nearly 600 million by 2023.

In 2018, over 58 percent of 14 to 21-year-olds watched live or recorded video of people playing competitive video games. Twenty-one percent (21%) of 16-24 year old U.S. males have watched an eSports tournament in the past month. Drone sports, a first cousin to eSports, is following the growth trajectory of eSports. Drone Racing League (DRL) races have now been viewed over 43 million times.

If you still aren’t convinced of the popularity of eSports, consider the photo below. This shows the 2018 Overwatch Championship, an eSport tournament which featured 24 nations from around the world. The combined in-person and online viewership of this competition averages over 861,000 viewers per min according to Annlee Ellison of Bizjournals.

Overwatch League Grand Finals Championship 2018

Overwatch League Grand Finals Championship 2018

What about military recruiting?

These eSports events represent a natural connection to the armed forces through military unmanned aircraft and first-person shooter games. Highly engaged audiences are creating productive events for military recruiters. But what happens when there are no events? That is where the true opportunity of eSports shines brighter than other sports.

Through different platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitch, Mobcrush and others, eSports professionals are able to connect through live-streams or pre-recorded content to engage their target audience head on. For example Richard Blevins, better known as Ninja to all the Fortnite fans, started his career in Halo 3 as a professional player for an organization called Cloud9. Last year he hit record numbers of followers while doing collaboration streams with famous rapper Drake and punching a 17 million subscriber count on YouTube. As of March of last year he could boast as many as 630,000 concurrent viewers.

Deliver short-term results while planning for long-term success

With the popularity of eSports among the military’s target audiences, eSports offer the recruiting commands a vehicle to engage and connect with fans and participants on a variety of levels. A marketing strategy that uses a combined approach leveraging a synchronized mix of brand building, leads generation and recruiter prospecting is most likely to produce meaningful results without unacceptable risk.

Unfortunately, early military recruiting strategies were short-term focused in both scope and execution. These approaches are mostly focused on prospecting at eSports events without the benefit of broader brand building or online lead generation.

eSports uniqueness when compared to other sports is the personal connections with both the athletes and brands. Yes, you want recruiters at eSports events interacting with prospects, but you also need to tailor content for your social media pages driven all the way to the recruiting station level.

It’s difficult to attend the thousands of events so consider media putting your military offerings in front of the eSports communities. There are even specialized media offerings to do this.

MARCH Marketing has created a unique display and video media package that leverages domain lists of the top 100 of best performing eSports sites like Electronic Sports League, Major League Gaming, Meg, Discord, Team Liquid, NRG, and Optic Gaming. These media leverage unique targeting parameters used by eSports teams, such as keyword and content targeting lists developed by eSports marketing managers. It also enables advertisers to own pieces of the major events from Apex to the eGames.

In sum, eSports has the potential to deliver great returns to military recruiting, across all military services, active duty, reserve, and National Guard. However, taking a “thin” approach can be risky in terms of wasted time, resources and brand image. Understanding the eSports ecosystem allows you to build an authentic grassroots strategy that allows the recruiters, players and fans to all win, both in the virtual and real world.

About MARCH Marketing, LLC

MARCH Marketing provides best-in-class military and veteran expertise to inform strategy, marketing, and services to commercial, government, and non-profit clients. With offices in Chicago, the agency is one of few that provide these types of world-class marketing and consulting services, and the only one with deep expertise into the military and veteran audience. When it comes to strategy and communications to military and veterans, MARCH is the agency to call. For more information, visit us at