If you follow a top esports team, there is a good chance that you've been exposed to a continuous video series they produce. Chances are also, that the episodes are shaped like a documentary, and invites you to be the fly on the wall, in situations you wouldn't otherwise have access to.
That sounds pretty accurate, right?
While traditional stick and ball-sports are still trying to grasp how to increase accessibility to players, staff and back-office, esports have been doing it since its inception. It's second nature, because if you are not telling your stories - if you don't shout them from the rooftops - who will?
But why the team-series? What is the fascination with the multi-month narrative, and why do teams almost indiscriminately turn to them across regions and games in esports?
Enter "The brand story".
Let me tell you about that one time...
In an entertainment economy where winners are lauded and losers are forgotten, it is important to make something out of the unavoidable losses that any team (bar Astralis apparently) will experience.
Here's where the team-series come in.
If you are familiar with marketing, you are also familiar with terms like "Positioning", "Purpose", "Tone" and "Voice" in conjunction with brand building. Those things are all important of course, but communicating them can be hard. There's a lot of telling in that, and not a lot of showing.
The brand story, the overarching narrative about your team, is what will translate those terms from words to action. And then we are back at defeats. What other moment do you find, anywhere in the world of competition, that is more defining of what your team is about, of what you will go through to come back and win, than after a crushing defeat?
If you watch the last few minutes of Episode 2 of Astralis' "To The Stars", I challenge you to dislike dev1ce. How can you not root for someone who has put himself on the line, only to see his dreams crumble?
The team-series has the potential, across titles, regions and demographies, to convey your positioning, your purpose, your tone and voice, and your brand story, in one single swoop. Why, you ask? Because customers and fans expect brands to open up and show them how things "really are".
We live in an age where the veil between company and customer ceases to exist, and people want to know everything about a business down to where raw materials are sourced and the gender and race composition of executive leadership. Here’s a heart-stopping study finding: Consumers want brands to move beyond customer satisfaction to establishing real emotional bonds.
It's imperative that you connect emotionally with your fans as an esports team, because at the end of the day, the differences in valueproposition between teams are often very small. Whereas stick and ball sports often have a geographical, political or demographic rooting, esports teams are more faceless and not as anchored. The byproduct of that is that fans aren't either. Creating emotional bonds, intertwining them in your stories, positive or negative, is a way to do that.
How do they do it?
Building that emotional report with fans is not an easy undertaking, and it takes a bit of tinkering to do it on a meaningful level. It's not just sticking a camera in front of the players and ask them questions. Neither is it removing all the red tape around them, and showing everything that happens.
The team-series is a carefully constructed content piece that aims at activating one (or more) of five areas.
As humans we are susceptible to relate to a transformation, wanting to follow the twist and turns of an unexpected journey. This is a common theme amongst a lot of the team-series out there; the journey towards a larger goal, which just by way of existing, will rally people behind the players.
A good example of one such series is ENCE's "The Road to IEM Katowice 2019", which detailed the team's trials and tribulations from they left Finland in January, to them losing the Grand Final in Poland, almost 2 months later.
It's easy to follow the timeline in this series, as it progresses chronologically, only interrupted by interviews that give more background information to what is happening.
Consistency and continuity
A common truth among content-creators is that if you deliver great content, in a continuous manner, you will eventually get a big break. That is not necessarily true, but for fans, having a consistent look and feel, and a continuous way to engage with the team, is of utmost importance.
If there's one team that has really understood that, it's OpTic Gaming. Running on its 6th season, "Vision" (Optic, vision, get it? I fucking love that title), is a staple in the fans' understanding of the team, its owner and everything around the organization.
As a mix of sit-down interview, match footage, candid behind the scenes footage and streaming material, the series is a very unpolished look at the personalities and players that represent Optic. As such they are able to churn out an episode at least once a month, and often times more often.
If you have a care for tracking an organization's growth, along with its owner and key personnel, go back to season 1 of Vision and watch up until today. It's a raw and interesting look into the machinery of one of the most distinguished esports organizations of today.
Authenticity and the fly on the wall
When esports-documentaries really hit a nerve, they have managed to put the viewer in a position where they don't feel like they are allowed to intrude. You involuntarily suck in breath, you make yourself as little as possible, to not interrupt what is going on, even if it is happening on a screen in front of you.
When it works best, it brings authenticity to the front, by portraying players, staff, owners and others as more than that. As humans in their own right, with more than polished statements for post-game interviewers and lacquered statements on social media.
When that happens you start bonding with them as a viewer, you establish an emotional connection with them, because the curtain is pulled back and they are shown to you as more than "just" players and staff.
TSM are at the forefront of esports content, not just because they're doing the team-series, but because they understand the innate need from the fans, to see what's happening behind the closed door of the team's backstage room. They invite the camera into hard conversations, they let the players speak their own defense, in their own words, to their team-mates - not to faceless fans on Twitter.
Jonas Kekko, Creative Director at North, taught me that just because you don't have any positive stories to tell, it doesn't mean you haven't got any GOOD stories to tell. That's exactly what TSM are leveraging, in every piece of their content. And fans respond in tune, by engaging with the content and supporting them in hard times.
Put passion on display
Do you have passionate leaders and employees who endear your values and live them out? Then use as the spearheads in your content, have them be your evangelists, your best ambassadors.
This is true in all branches of marketing, and certainly in the team-series as well. If you have people who burn with a fierce passion, and that passion aligns with your brands values and missions mind you, make them the centerpiece in the communication.
One team that does this brilliantly is North, if I may say so. With Jonas "whimp" Svendsen, retired CS 1.6 professional and now Director of Esports, being the anchor point for all the sporting decisions in their "ROAR"-series, you get to connect with him on several levels.
The passion that whimp possess and radiate is a connecting point for a lot of fans. Even if they don't believe the team is living up to expectations (they rarely do, no matter the circumstances), fans know that they have a passionate man behind the wheel, and getting to know his trials and tribulations, as well as his thoughts on core problems in the team, makes it easier to alleviate bad spells for the organization.
Cater to your audience
I know this one sounds lame, but knowing what sort of content your audience is craving is an oft overlooked part of marketing. As marketers we are often driven by our own convictions, and even where data is abundant it can be hard to make sense of it.
It's hard to make sense of data, contexts and translate it into easily achieveable content creation goals. It takes hard work, experience, skills and not a little bit of gut feeling as well. If you want to learn from the best in esports, look no further than FaZe Clan though. Even if FaZe has transcended the normal esports organization (truly, they have never been one I think) and become an entertainment behemoth in esports, they are still producing relatively low-cost and low-key content. Because that's what their audience are craving.
At the same time, they make choices that leave their competition in wonder, but they do so based (from the best I can discern) on an intuitive understanding of what is RIGHT for them as a brand.
A perfect example is the pickup of H1GHSKY1, the youngest FaZe member ever. How do you not love this kid?
What FaZe seems to understand is that they have fostered something that fans aspire to become: A member of FaZe Clan. How better to keep that alive, in a fan-base that has most likely become younger with the success of Fortnite, than pick up a kid of their fans' age, who is an absolutely brilliant proponent of their values?
What can YOU do?
The success of the team-series have forever changed the esports content-landscape, and it has become a part of the toolbox for every Tier 1 team. With the success of similar series on Amazon Prime (Manchester City, All Blacks), Netflix (Sunderland 'Till I Die) and others, there is no reason not to believe that it's going to become even more utilized going forward.
But what can you learn from the team-series, and how can it help you create better content going forward?
Here are three learnings you can heed from the team-series.
1: Personalize brand values
If there is one thing that the team-series does exceptionally well, it is breaking down intricate topics into relatable and personal stories. By having the players, coaches, support staff and owners embody the brand values, it makes them personal. It makes them easy to understand, because they exist in a context.
The reason is that values are only important, if you can attribute a behaviour to them. Let us say that one of your brand values are "Innovation". What does that even mean for your customers or fans? It's just a word right now. If you link behaviours to it, through your employees, it's easier to understand. In the example of innovation, make sure you show off in what way you utilize the concept as an organization. In an esports setting, you are maybe doing something very differently than your competitors; use different tools, see the game fundamentally different, treat your players differently, focus more on support functions or breaking ground in other areas.
2: Be authentic
Authenticity breeds engagement, and the in the art of brand building that is no different. Note that there is a very distinct difference between (complete) honesty, transparency and authenticity. You do not need to be completely honest or completely transparent, to be authentic.
But you have to invest yourself, your brand and your employees in the content, because if you don't it'll fall through. If you are authentic, people will allow the shortcomings, they will accept that there are things you won't (or can't) show, because you've been honest and transparent to the point you are able to.
Without authenticity, the brand story falls apart however, because then it just becomes a picture you paint to look good. Authenticity is also why a lot of the esports team-series involve failure. There are so many chances to fail in esports, that it'd be a gross oversight, not to involve some part of that.
3: Create long tail value
I hate the "evergreen"-convention for content, because the bulk of evergreen-content seems to be badly rehashed blogposts, created to draw in SEO-traffic. With that out of the way, I want you to think about the content you create as a long tail machine.
The team-series, and other continuous story-concepts, have the potential to become evergreen content, and be relevant even a long time down the line. Today Astralis is the ultimative best CS:GO team in the World, but in 2016 when they started creating "To The Stars", it wasn't so. The stories told then, in a five episode documentary, is however still relatable today, and is a great starting point for any new fan, trying to understand the journey and experiences that made the current lineup what it is.
In truth, a lot of the traffic and eyeballs on any continuous series, will be long tail value, and for team-series in esports this is even more true. I remember that "To The Stars" remained a fine series in terms of views and engagements on launch, but it wasn't until almost a year after the inaugural episode, that the big break came, when someone reposted the link on the CS:GO subreddit. Creating a concept that's still cool to watch a year after launch, should be a given, in order to maximize lifetime value.
Another way of increasing the lifetime value, is to make sure you immortalize the content on your social platforms. In Astralis I started doing that by creating reaction-gifs off of each episode, so that the main account, and the fans, could engage with the content.
The gifs creates an easy way to engage with the content, and at the same time establishes a direct link back to your original piece. And maybe, 1 year from now, a new customer or fan, will ask where that one funny gif is from, and start watching the series...