Insights

It’s All About the First Impression: aXiomatic and AoE Creative

July 24, 2019 By Leo Hsu, Director of Business Strategy

Investment dollars continue to pour into esports, with each passing quarter generating a new round of headlines touting the industry’s ‘record’ growth. While a majority of investment capital continues to flow primarily into professional team organizations, game developers/publishers, and leagues, we at aXiomatic are excited to be waging a different kind of bet. Today, we’re announcing our investment in AoE Creative, a startup agency supporting the oft-overlooked but critically important area of brand strategy and marketing within the esports ecosystem.

During my time at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, my coursework included reviewing science-backed research of a truism I’d previously gleaned ‘on-the-go’ as a startup founder: first impressions matter. A company’s upfront investment in brand strategy can yield dividends for years to come through consumer awareness, market positioning and customer loyalty. Alternatively, attempting to retroactively fix negative brand perceptions can be a costly—and sometimes futile—corporate exercise. 

As a lifelong gamer, I can also attest to the significant role that branding plays in consumer decision-making when it comes to the world of video games and esports specifically. In fact, given the inherently visual nature of video games and the resulting expectations of esports’ core audience, I’d argue that branding is an even larger factor in making or breaking an esports startup than it might be in other consumer-facing industries. This belief was reinforced during my time as an Esports & Community Manager at Blizzard Entertainment, where carefully constructed brand elements would underpin all Blizzard products, resulting in an extremely passionate fanbase united by a common identity.

Despite branding’s particular importance in esports, there are surprisingly few (if any) agencies with the right combination of esports-endemic knowledge and proficiency in the craft to operate successfully at this intersection. Enter AoE Creative, an independent creative agency specializing in gaming and esports that offers a wide range of services from strategy consultancy to design and marketing. The company was founded by CEO Simon Bennett and CCO Markel Lee, who both came of age amid competitive gaming’s first wave and have developed an esports expertise unmatched by any other agency today. Simon’s 15 years of experience includes executive stints at Activision-Blizzard, Razer, Wargaming, FACEIT, and Infinite Esports & Entertainment (the parent company of OpTic Gaming and the Houston Outlaws), while Markel’s background as a designer and production director includes Evil Geniuses, Infinite Esports & Entertainment, Absolute Battle, the Evolution Championship Series, Community Effort Orlando, Panda X Gaming, and PVP Live.

The case of the Overwatch League franchise Houston Outlaws offers an illuminating example of AoE’s approach to both the universal and industry-specific branding challenges that many esports organizations face. For those who are unfamiliar, the Overwatch League is the top professional league for Blizzard’s hit team FPS (first-person shooter) game Overwatch, featuring 20 team franchises representing major metropolitan areas in North America, Europe, and Asia. During the league’s development in 2017, the AoE Creative team was tasked with designing and implementing branding for the Houston-based franchise. On the one hand, their primary challenge was one shared by nearly every professional sports team in the world: creating an authentic, stand-out brand  that resonates with audiences. In addition, Simon and Markel had to contend with several factors unique to the Overwatch League, including the requirement that all participating teams develop wholly original, geocentric brand identities which resonated with the game’s brand as well as the culture of their home cities. For teams with “endemic” ownership—such as the Houston franchise, whose parent company OpTic Gaming is among esports’ most recognizable brands—it was important to leverage the parent organization’s brand equity while keeping the new team’s identity distinct from it. Simon Bennett described the process to us in detail:

When creating a new brand in a saturated space, especially the esports industry, you must create one that has the power to stand out from the pack and directly appeal to the target audience demographic. This was our goal for the Houston Outlaws. At the start, we decided to create an identity around the concept of “America’s Team,” meaning a team brand that resonated specifically with the US audience and emphasized all the good associations around being both an American and a Texan.

To begin with, we created archetypes for the target audience taken from our deep understanding of the industry and the strong Houston-area sports fan culture. This led to the development of the tagline “We don’t start fights, we finish them”—this phrase was our equivalent of Nike’s “Just Do it” or Apple’s “Think Different” and it personified the voice and tone of the heroic outlaw protecting those in need. Community-building and fandom was also crucial to success for the Outlaws, and after the creation of an iconic logo and color scheme (which featured a nod to OpTic Gaming’s branding) we set about creating amazing and memorable fan experiences to strengthen the already-growing fanbase. These efforts, coupled with a solid first season and lovable, iconic player choices, allowed us to build the most talked-about Overwatch League team of 2018.

In the future, when the current breathless hype surrounding esports eventually subsides, I believe the industry’s staying power will ultimately be determined by teams’ and brands’ ability to develop strong, multigenerational fanbases and to successfully monetize against these deep connections. In other words, the brand strategy groundwork laid by esports organizations today could have a decisive impact on the industry’s long-term viability. We’re confident the AoE team has the experience and expertise required to deliver on that promise and excited for them to work with fellow companies in the aXiomatic portfolio. Welcome to the family, AoE Creative!

For more information on AoE Creative, visit https://aoecreative.com.