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NFL, on the Trail of a Younger Audience, Drafts Fortnite

15 May, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

The NFL Draft is huge economic win for host cities but in terms of keeping fans entertained, it’s a challenge. Even with this year’s free concerts from country luminaries like Tim McGraw and Dierks Bentley (the Draft was held in Nashville, after all), organizers are always looking for ways to change things up – and keep spectators interested.

Simply put, there’s a lot of time to fill between rounds and picks. Viewers at home and online get graphics, commentary and lots of funny commercials (they can also walk out of the room and come back) but in-person entertainment calls for a steady stream of stimulation.

This year, the NFL decided to make the most of its collaboration with esports powerhouse Epic Games and offered fans the ability to watch another big matchup: Fortnite. Twitch streamer Nick “NickMercs” Kolcheff streamed Fortnite Battle Royale live from the Draft, playing the game alongside Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariotta and Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. The livestream was hosted on Kolcheff’s Twitch channel and ran for about two hours, according to Dexerto.

It wasn’t NickMercs’s first rodeo football event, either. His appearance at the 2019 NFL Draft marked another chapter in his continued work with the organization, which has also seen him host NFL games live on his channel and stream Fortnite Battle Royale with star players.

The employment of esports is an attempt on the part of the NFL to bring in younger fans.The average age of an NFL viewer rose by four years to 50 between 2006 and 2016, according to data from Magna Global cited by Sports Business Daily. NickMercs is in his late twenties.

In December, the NFL made another grab for a younger audience by having Tyler "Ninja" Blevins, the most popular gamer on Twitch, provide his first play-by-play commentary in a co-stream of the Thursday Night Football. Ninja, who has 12 million followers on Twitch (and the first gamer to be featured on the cover of ESPN Magazine), is also in his twenties.

Outside of its work with popular influencers like MickMercs and Ninja, the NFL has continued to work to cross-pollinate Fortnite and football. Last November, the league signed a licensing deal with Epic Games to allow player’s avatars to suit up in official NFL gear (known as skins in esports parlance). 

"We see the popularity of Fortnite every day at the NFL as many of our players are passionate about this game," said Brian Rolapp, Chief Media and Business Officer at the NFL. "This partnership represents a great opportunity for millions of NFL fans who are Fortnite players to express their fandom inside the game while at the same time exposing our brand to countless others."

Fortnite, arguably one of the most popular (if not the most popular) games in the arena today, is a favorite of athletes who say they use it to relieve stress and shut out distractions (like, you know, the kind associated with NFL Draft and the Super Bowl, according to some players).

The NFL isn’t just relying on esports to reach its younger public via the draft. It announced a new ecommerce partnership with Instagram that let fans purchase official NFL Draft hats through the social media platform.

According to Variety, draftees selected during Thursday’s first round will be photographed backstage wearing the New Era Draft Day hat of the team that selected them. Those photos will then be shared to the @NFL account on Instagram with shopping tags that will shift users over to the NFL Shop.

“We wanted to look at a major moment that really focused on athletes,” said Will Yoder, sports partnerships at Instagram. “We know identity is a huge part of fandom. This is the tip of the iceberg.”

It certainly is. Next year, the NFL Draft will be hosted in Las Vegas, which also happens to be the home of the HyperX Esports Arena. Expect another gaming event at that time and place.

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