The role of esports in employee engagement: Case study of PwC Gaming Masters

PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC Germany) is the host of an innovative and award winning recruitment event format called the PwC Gaming Masters. PwC Gaming Masters uses esports, short for electronic sports, played as an online video game with competitors which spectators can watch for entertainment. The PwC Gaming Masters was founded in 2017 by Gian Luca Vitale, Gaming & Esports Advisory, Lead Business Development Gaming & Esports at PwC Germany, who also holds the naming rights for this event. This novel concept for recruitment, talent attraction and retention connects PwC with new and ambitious talent and invites them to compete in online gaming and develop skills that are important in the workplace: teamwork, strategic thinking, collaboration, flexibility and decision-making, among others, and also other corporates can join the competition and experience corporate esports.

Esports is growing rapidly and attracting the attention of big brands to its tournaments, livestreams and athlete sponsorships. This competitive video gaming format strongly appeals to Generation Z (born from 1997 to 2012), a younger demographic which is difficult to reach with traditional advertising and that’s one of the reasons why brands are paying close attention to the growing esports industry. In this interview with Gian Luca Vitale, he explains the importance of esports, who are the stakeholders in this industry, what the future looks like, what is corporate esports and how to attract more female players to this industry. 

The interview took place in April in Interlaken at the Congress Kursaal Interlaken and Gian Luca joined remotely from Dusseldorf. 

Esports: definition, facts and figures 

What is the ‘face’ of gaming nowadays? It’s your Game Boy, it’s the PlayStation, it can be your computer and it can even be your mobile app. That’s all gaming. 

Esports is the competitive part of gaming. It’s about teams, leagues, price points, rules, fandome, it is a life style. I would say it’s the digital pendant to sports for a younger generation. Numbers-wise, gaming is worth around 160 billion USD on the global market, and esports is around 1.4 billion globally. If you compare esports to where it is today to where it will be in the future, it’s just the beginning. Even so, it’s the absolute flagship of this whole industry. Esports is supposed to be the equivalent of what soccer or football was for my father’s generation and also for my generation, for the younger generation. And what’s even more fascinating is the people behind it. It’s all about the people in the community. There are 2.5 billion gamers around the globe. And that is huge. This is not a niche, this is mainstream and when it’s about esports, there are around 500 million fans. Not everybody who is a gamer is an esports fan, but everybody who is an esports fan is more likely to be a gamer.

Last but not least, it’s always interesting where growth rates are going. The annual growth rate of gaming is around 14% and esports is around 20 to 30%. So this is pretty huge and it’s fast growing.

The stakeholders

Let’s compare sports and esports. Nobody owns sports, but they’re heavily regulated, and there are clubs and so on. But esports are owned by the respective publisher. It’s intellectual property (IP), it’s entertainment software, it’s information software. And so the publishers have the greatest power in the market. So it’s all about them. They dictate the rules.

The legal tournament providers are also important. They are creating the leagues and the major events.

Then there are the athletes. The athletes are the elite athletes. They play 8 to 12 hours a day, every day to compete and to increase their ranking. 

And part of what is very special about esports is the community. The community has a very strong sense of ownership and commitment, and has a deep sense of loyalty to those esports athletes. And it’s all around the publicity. It’s advertising, engaging with the communities and making efforts to bond with those young audiences. That makes it interesting for brands, and also for corporates, because it’s very hard to reach young audiences. You cannot use standard marketing to connect with them. Even with digital marketing, they have all ad blockers and they don’t want to be disrupted in their entertainment use. So esports is heavy entertainment, although it’s sport and esports is the right vehicle to reach this audience. The challenge for brands is to be able to create a benefit that is authentic. 

What is corporate esports?

Esports in general is very consumer heavy. It’s like flashy events, it’s big leagues, it’s international. It’s all about the consumers, let’s say, brands like Red Bull, Nike or Daimler or BMW, reaching the brand. So that’s pretty straightforward. You want to place your products, your services into this target group. But corporate esports is something different. Corporate esports uses esports, the user experience part, to reach the young audience for the topics of employer branding, talent acquisition and talent assessment. So gaming and esports is the experience vehicle. 

But what’s even more interesting is, behind gaming are certain digital skills, like being team oriented, pattern recognition, being strategic, effective communication, planning and deep dive knowledge – all of which you would need in this modern corporate world. So what we say is that esports is also about talents, about technology. Esports is the right way to attract a certain kind of people you want to have for your digital transformation. Therefore, we leverage the benefits of corporate esports, where employees play against each other, where employees play with talents or young professionals together in tournaments. 

In the modern era, it’s not so much about your CV or your degrees, it’s about your personality because you cannot even distinguish between universities anymore. I would say there are so many good universities, but what you want to have is the right talent with a growth mindset and a commitment to lifelong learning. You want to see the real person, and whether you can work with him. Is they willing to compete? And that’s what esports reveals. We put the person at the forefront, the experience at the forefront. You get to know someone very well when you play with them, better than in any normal interview. And that’s what corporate esports is about, using esports for the corporate purpose of finding talent.

What is the PwC Gaming Masters?

We have been doing PwC Gaming Masters for four years now, or five years if you count our pilot phase. We started it by identifying a problem; everything starts with a problem. We want it to be very attractive for digital talents. And so with that, how can we playfully get into this market and attract them? So, we created this event. And actually it’s a tournament. Employees against employees, corporate against corporate talents. So these are mixed teams. For example, in a five person game, we bring together three employees and two talents from corporates. They need to play a cup. It’s about six weeks. It’s an online group stage, so everything is very digital. It culminates in the onsite final, which is a huge event, where everybody comes together. And we play top esports titles like League of Legends, Valorant, FIFA or Overwatch, for example. And there’s the competition going on like a normal esports tournament. But on top of that, we also have deep dive exchanges with the talent. For example, I’m in a virtual presentation on the stream and share about my career and where gaming has brought me. Why is gaming so important? What is gaming in my daily business life and why gaming is also a big industry, is a very serious industry and why we need experts like those gamers to be the thought leader in this game. So it’s pretty clear if you want to be the top consulting company, for example, in gaming and esports, you need those young talents because they are from the community. They know everything best. All they need is the experience of business thinking. So that’s the event about. We invite other corporates, they play with us and it’s all about the personal fit between corporates and talents. 

For people who are not so deep into HR, a brief background on the process. There’s a candidate journey before you’re in the company and there’s an employee journey. So for the candidates, it’s about attracting candidates and being visible in this community and also getting to know the company. It’s not so much about assessment at the beginning. For the employee it’s their experience with the company; we had all these dynamic times during the pandemic. But what is digital culture? Where does it start? And so gaming and esports is a possibility for people in a company to connect after work, to bond, to enjoy a social event. So that’s what we call employer branding. It’s a platform for young people to exchange information on business topics. 

And the third part, the skills set.  Behind each game is a different kind of skill set, a different kind of personality who is playing those games. So based on which games you play, which decisions you make, I can tell you what kind of business person you might be and what is the perfect job for you. Or maybe who’s the perfect candidate for your corporation. Candidate assessments change. Recruitment is less about what candidates can prepare for and the image they decide to project and more about their skills, personality and decision-making in the heat of the game; the results are as good as normal assessment processes. That’s what the PwC Gaming Masters is all about. It’s a huge event that prioritises user experience and technology.

Gian Luca Vitale, Gaming & Esports Advisory, Lead Business Development Gaming & Esports at PwC Germany

How do you attract female talent in particular, because there are already fewer females in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. And esports also might not immediately appeal to a female audience. 

The challenge of attracting females to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects is topical within society and gaming and esports cannot solve it right away. It’s a topic of education. It’s a topic  at which stage do women get to know technological things. For example, if you don’t start getting to know computers from an early age, it’s not so likely that you will go into technical studies. How do we address this topic? Diversity is a huge topic for us. 

There are some games which are more attractive to women; for example, according to our experience, women are not so much about the really heavy, crazy competitive games. But they are more about party games like Mario Kart. 

But it’s also about the game itself. In the market, there are games and esports titles where the player population of women is already higher. For example, League of Legends is very man dominated, but there are more women playing Veteran although it’s a first person shooter. So it’s about the choice of games and it’s a choice how you introduce it to women and it’s about rules you set up. So our event is not so much about the competition or winning this tournament, it’s about the people, team building and providing a fun experience. So we’re making mixed teams. It’s a rule to have mixed teams and that’s how you bring lots of women into the area and to address this issue. But to be very frank here, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge for the industry itself. And also corporate esports cannot solve it right away.

Right now you are specialising in recruitment. Do you see it expanding to other areas in your company?

The PwC Gaming Masters has been an exemplar demonstrating what is possible in digital events when you put user experience first. Even the B2B or the business context itself will be more about the client and employee experience. Now we can make a slight shift to the overall arching buzzword of ‘metaverse’ involving an interconnected virtual world. The focus of the business community will be on personal experiences because the boundaries between private life and business life are shifting and everyone’s attention span is very short and we want to have more things, new things, exciting things. And that’s why even other business aspects are becoming more about providing a good experience. 

For example, how did streams look in the past? On our end, we used a more conservative approach to showcase the brand and focused only on serious topics. If we use esports as a flagship product, it shows how streams can look like with stingers, with infotainment, and also how to present the people involved. And we’re also on a learning curve there. It’s all about learning from other disciplines. And that’s what we do with the game and esports. How do optimise the user experience for our clients and showcase something besides a speech, that they can be part of in a very interactive way. That’s what the esports can teach you for other events. That it’s more the idea of festivals. So even a business get-together can be a festival because we’re all people. We like fun and when something is funny we are more motivated to do things, to do our job. That’s what we need to learn from gaming and esports. And yes, we have created the Gaming Masters. But what, for example, is the metaverse mania? Whatever this is, let’s take it. And that’s why we’re expanding this kind of approach to other formats.

Where do you see the future of esports?

When you look at the lifecycle of something, esports is still in the growing phase. So what do I see? I think esports will become more popular with the masses. At the moment, you might associate esports with flashy events which are only the tip of the iceberg. But the semi-professional and the grassroot aspect of esports bring so many opportunities for local or national brands. Because right at the moment it’s all about big international brands for this international audience, which are in so many markets. But if you think more of esports operating on the lower level, there’s even more opportunity for national brands to be part of this and even on a local level. It will grow, there’s no question. Ask young people what they want to be. There’s a shift; for example, soccer maybe has the challenge of attracting new audience. Esports don’t have this problem. So esports will one day be like NBA or soccer, that’s for sure. And it will be even more immersive when the metaverse, whatever form this will take, will come to us. Because the next esports title might be a blockchain game, might be in the metaverse. And I think the esports industry will grow, will be more professional, will be more stable, more profitable. And we will see more brands and more corporations leveraging this opportunity. And with this investors will come. 

To conclude

The PwC Gaming Masters is an innovative example of a hybrid event format that engages the gaming and esports community both online and at a live event. There’s a high degree of technological usage for communication, skill development and entertainment in the lead up to the final live event where all participants can finally meet each other face to face.  

My biggest takeaway from this interview is the value of rethinking old practices and to be open minded about learn from other industries. As Gian Luca mentioned, traditional advertising targeting Gen Z is no longer working; we need to come up with innovative solutions, and one of them is tapping into interest communities and identifying thought leaders within the communities and collaborating with them. The insights from this interview are not exclusive to HR and recruitment events, but also for other disciplines looking to introduce a high degree of technological innovation and collaboration. 

Sponsored content. In collaboration with Congress Kursaal Interlaken / Convention Bureau Interlaken.

Venue: Congress Kursaal Interlaken.

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