Collaboration with esports arena creates a winning experience for business students, gamers and fans

students in esports arenaMaking its way into the spotlight, Western Michigan University’s Esports Arena aims to support the popularity of computer gaming with a state-of-the-art-facility that serves both the University and the Kalamazoo gaming community. The facility is one of the only esports arenas in Michigan to provide space for practice, tournament play and professional production in one location. To maximize both participant and audience experience in this ambitious endeavor, WMU worked with Haworth College of Business students in the digital marketing and sports marketing programs to offer their expertise to the project. Digital marketing students used consumer analytics and primary research to better align the arena’s website with its target audiences and business model, while advanced sports marketing students worked on researching the relationship between the fan experience and esports.

“I think our marketing students and particularly the sports marketing students are excited that WMU is investing in the esports space because it is such a dynamically growing industry,” says John Weitzel, faculty specialist in marketing. Working with members of the esports team, Weitzel’s class shared data and industry information to better understand the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for the program. “In class, we spend time working on the fan experience, and I think this has helped our students gain a lot of real-world knowledge,” says Weitzel. “They are pioneers in developing a robust participant experience for both spectators and fans, which is very applicable in esports.” Weitzel looks forward to partnering further with the arena as it grows its connection with fans at future events.

Digital marketing students, guided by Dr. Scott Cowley, assistant professor of marketing, first met with Elizabeth Turner, a customer experience expert from VMLY&R, who helped prepare the students for their initial client meeting with representatives at the arena, to better understand the different stakeholder perspectives on the arena opportunities, challenges, and core objectives.

“Dr. Cowley did an awesome job of providing our class with hands-on experiences and exposing us to real digital marketing practices,” says Olivia Nikkel, a senior digital marketing student. “I had no idea what to expect. Being a non-gamer, I was worried I wasn’t going to understand the atmosphere, but that wasn’t the case at all. The esports team was so passionate about the arena and the impact it could have on the community. We played Overwatch and Rocket League, asked questions and understood the gaming environment better. Being one of the only universities in Michigan to have an esports arena is something that deserves to be marketed.”

Digital marketing students used competitor and market research, along with website analytics and usability interviews with gamers, to understand the behavior and values of different gaming markets to which the arena hopes to appeal. Groups made recommendations for improving the website experience to align with these marketing personas and the arena’s goals. In the end, students were able to present their strategies to the esports arena’s marketing and website specialists, including website mockups with search engine optimization recommendations.

The partnerships were a win for all involved. “It was a pleasure to collaborate with Dr. Cowley’s digital marketing class and have many of our WMU esports marketing strategies confirmed by the research and the recommendations made in the class presentations,” says Lisa Knutson, manager of marketing and creative development for Auxiliary Enterprises. “I enjoyed working with the students because I do not have many opportunities to do so in my current role. We can be proud of the quality students we are sending out into the workforce. I look forward to working with Dr. Cowley in the future­—he is an example of the great faculty we have here at WMU.” According to Cowley, the goal has always been to have students do work with impact. “It’s ideal when we have a client like the esports arena that has been so generous with its time, but is also fun for students to work with and learn from. I look forward to the next stage when we hope to see insights we generated integrated into the arena’s digital experience.”

Tavian Napier, coordinator of the arena, agrees the facility has the potential to be a campus hub that fosters student learning and collaboration. “The world of esports is ever growing, and one of the most important aspects of being an esports organization is marketing. As we learn and grow, we want to streamline information for our students and get more of them involved in the many facets of esports. Students and spectators will have a one-of-a-kind experience that will impact them for years to come.”