Picking your favorite sports team is easy.
You can align yourself with your hometown squad, pick your parents' favorite team, or go with whatever organization your friends follow.
Esports fans don't have these luxuries. We're just getting city-based teams now and only in a select few locations. Forget taking your cues from friends and family—you’re unlikely to have friends who are esports fans and even less likely that your parents even know what esports are.
And yet, esports fans are just as raving and tribal as sports fans. Team SoloMid, Cloud9, Unicorns of Love and OpTic Gaming inspire serious fandom, all without hereditary or geographical ties to their fans.
As it turns out, the way traditional sports fans are choosing their teams has a lot more in common with esports than you might think.
According to John Williams, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Leicester in the UK, the way sports fans pick their teams is changing. His research focuses on soccer, and says that between the internet and international television broadcasts, it’s much easier to be a fan of a team that isn’t even based in the same region as you than it’s ever been.
“I think what happens is that people who have smaller local clubs, particularly people of my generation, they very often still have a strong connection to a local club and hope that their children or grand children will maintain that connection,” he said. “What is more likely now is that connection may be a little softer amongst the younger generation of fans, and they may harbor an interest, a connection with a larger club that they see on TV and they like their products and they like the clamor of their stars.”
But while fans don’t necessarily change teams as they grow up, they do tend to gravitate towards teams that win. Williams says you can track when certain soccer fans started to support their teams by seeing when that team had a particularly impressive winning streak. The fact is, winners draw fans, and that’s more and more true these days.
When it comes to esports fans, things aren’t too different. Some of the most popular teams in the world are very successful in one esport or another. Many Cloud9 fans, for example, can trace their fandom back to the team’s incredibly successful 2013 season, where they qualified for the LCS, took first in the regular season and playoffs, and placed 5th-8th at Worlds.
Success breeds fans, at least initially, especially when people don’t have a local team to root for. Success also gives fans more opportunities to latch on to individual personalities on successful teams, since players tend to get more media attention and more chances to talk.
“I became a fan of Cloud9 the first day they were in the LCS, after their sweep of that first weekend in Summer 2013, I remember Phreak trying to goad Sneaky to say that 'we’re the best, we’re gonna take the split without dropping a game,' or 'yeah this was super easy,' but the bait wasn’t taken,” Alex Aune, a C9 fan and one of the moderators of the C9 subreddit told theScore esports.
“Sneaky gave respect to his opponents that day, that week, and to the teams they beat while in the challenger scene. Even if it was a joke, they’d answer every question for a W/L prediction on the split with no more wins than they had already earned. Essentially, Cloud9 represented a team that respected others, and conducted themselves in a way that I, as a fan, could stand behind and beside.”
According to Williams, individual players tend to pick up fans more and more these days. It’s easier to follow players on social media, and in esports, there’s also the chance to watch players stream when they aren’t playing pro games. It's a window into the person lives of pros that wasn't possible just a decade or two ago. But Williams also says that team personality, crafted and curated by managers, coaches and even owners has an impact on how fans pick their favorite teams.
Unlike esports organizations though, sports organizations have had years to cultivate their fan identities, and can tie them closely to their city’s identity. Esports teams have had less time, and thus it’s hard to pull personality out of them as effectively. Several TSM fans told theScore esports they feel their team's identity comes from them being a winning squad.
Meanwhile, Aune says that, for him, the Cloud9 identity is about humility and the organization’s owner, Jack Etienne.
“Jack is just such a good owner. The confidence in his team is always such an inspiration, and he seems to genuinely care about the guys. It’s little things like purchasing tickets to Korea to bootcamp before the team has even ‘booked their ticket’ to Worlds through the gauntlet. It’s how happy he is when the team succeeds, not because it’s his team being successful, but because it’s a group of guys he cares about being successful on their own.”
However, there are other ways to build an organizational identity. OpTic Gaming has one of the biggest, loudest fanbases in esports, and team owner Hector “H3CZ” Rodriguez says the best way to do that is to go back to basics and focus on personalities. Specifically, players, management and even ownership.
“I think that's been the sauce we've used to make this happen,” he said. “I upload almost daily videos, and everybody in the Green Wall, they know all five names of my dogs, they know my wife, they know my kid, and as such, you're going to cheer for me rather than another esports owner, because you don't know anything about them. You have no familiarity with that person.
“My thoughts have always been transcend the esport into a personality and then everything else is going to fall into place, because of the familiarity you build with your fans.”
H3CZ says that at first, the way to build fans was to sign big personalities and crank out content. Daily videos, streams, interviews, everything. Now that the organization is more established, they can swing their focus back around to successful teams, which of course, brings in more fans and feeds the content cycle.
That sounds a little clinical, but H3CZ says it’s the most successful strategy he’s seen, and it’s the secret that’s expanded OpTic’s fanbase so much over the years. It’s something we’re likely to see in the future, as teams like OpTic gear up for the Overwatch League, where they’ll have to build all-new brands. H3CZ says OpTic’s strategy isn’t changing, but it might have to.
For Williams, no matter how much the internet has changed fandom, there’s a special connection regional ties have that nothing else can replace.
“The symbolism of clubs here is very important,” Williams said. “How the shirt looks, what kind of sponsors you have and who are they, do they fit with the fans overall, fans of the identity of the club. Those kinds of things are connected to the idea still that the club ought to be mainly for local people, and local people shouldn't be excluded to allow higher spending people to come from other parts of the world to watch a game. I think that is quite strongly felt.”
Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. He watches these games so you don't have to. You can follow him on Twitter.