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Case study: How AFL turned to online gaming events and what organizers can learn

When Covid hit, the Australian Football League’s (AFL) 2020 season was suspended. To keep players and fans connected, the AFL turned to gaming. With a 31-day turnaround, the AFL Gamers Network launch event was held, reaching an audience of more than 18 million.


Credit: afl.com.au

Read on for a case study, plus insights on what virtual event planners can learn.

Australia’s biggest spectator sport is football and, in recent years, professional teams have been looking towards the gaming phenomenon for new revenue-making opportunities and to attract new groups of fans, particularly in the younger demographic.

Marketing objectives


Prior to 2020, the AFL had been involved in gaming for a few years in various ways but had not gone as far as establishing its own community.

AFL’s marketing heads knew a network could provide a different and authentic gaming experience to a new generation of fans that may not have interacted with the game and it would allow the brand to deliver a product to unite under and grow their fan base.


Community building

So, in April 2020, with all matches canceled, the AFL Gamers Network was created. To mark its launch, a gaming and sports crossover online event – AFL Stream King featuring Epic Games’ Fortnite – took place a month later.


The staggering numbers


This two-hour tournament, streamed on Twitch, achieved a staggering broadcast reach of almost 1.4 million viewers, with around 86,000 concurrent viewers at its peak, plus a combined social, digital, and PR reach to more than 18.6 million people.


The format

The format of the tournament featured 41 of the region’s biggest Fortnite players and 41 leading AFL players (who are also avid gamers) pair up to battle it out to be named AFL ‘Stream King’. The top four teams were awarded a share of a $100,000 prize pool for their chosen charities.


Event planning

The average time a game of Fortnite lasts is 20 to 45 minutes, so organizers planned the event in blocks based on these timings.


Brad Manuel, co-founder and CEO of Livewire Group, who helped to organize the event, said the team had to plan content for the dead time between games, as well as during play.


This included a chat feed, live continuous commentary from gaming experts, and highlights videos. Viewers could also see their favorite gamers throughout.


A practice event took place a few days before and to communicate with various organizing teams and players, many of whom were working remotely, Manuel used instant messaging platform, Discord.


Pre-event marketing

The event was advertised through a drip social media campaign, using the vast combined following of the AFL players and the gaming influencers, as well as through the traditional press.

The big challenges


Speaking about the challenges, Manuel explained: “One of the biggest challenges is managing the talent. Well-known gamers are paid, but the lesser-known ones will play for the kudos. This can mean that not all of them will turn up on the day. Technical difficulties are a major focus to prepare for when executing online gaming tournaments.

“Organizing them is challenging but exciting and fun. In the future, we could build excitement by running competitions and dropping prizes to engage fans.”


Post-event comms

Post-event, a highlights video was put on the AFL Gamers Network’s YouTube channel and across social media channels to extend engagement for participants but also to expand the tournament’s reach beyond them.


There was also a range of creators, sharing their results, while charities generated positive social and PR responses after receiving notification of the money players won for their cause.

Insights from gaming...

Why are gaming tournaments so successful, and what can virtual event organizers learn?


When planning a virtual event, it’s useful to remember why gaming events are so crazily successful.


They are fun, exciting, entertaining, engaging, immersive, and competitive.


Virtual environments


Engineer a similar environment for your online conference or event, by using special effects, such as AR, VR, 3D projection mapping, gamification, quizzes, and other types of competition formats.

Sense of competition


For example, create a contest for your audience to win a one-to-one tutorial with an expert speaker at your event.


Display a leaderboard for some activities and throw in prizes, or tokens to collect prizes, that your audience will value.


Add in surprise lottery draws or time slots where rewards are doubled.

Some delegates may not wish to compete but will enjoy watching a competitive play, just as gamers do. Ensure the activity is worth watching for your viewers, as well as the participants.


Community building

In the gaming world, there is a strong sense of community.


For virtual events to be really successful, community building will be more important than ever going forward. Communities provide an opportunity to fill in the gaps between events and so will impact and support your events, according to Eric Ly, LinkedIn co-founder and founder of Hub.

Communities united around a purpose are more likely to generate brand loyalty and brand ambassadors, which will strengthen your brand and your events.


Create a strong community by interacting with them on something like an online community platform where they can have meaningful engagement.


Shared experience

Following on from this, gaming activations also provide a sense of shared experience. Make your event interactive. Find creative, memorable, and authentic ways of getting your audience involved and feeling that sense of unity and togetherness.


Entertainment from a magician or live band will help to keep your audience’s attention, but find creative ways to involve them, such as getting them to try the magic tricks, which were pre-delivered in a goodie box-style package.


Celebrity appeal

The gaming audience also enjoys watching and interacting with their favorite celebrity gamers. This could be replicated at a conference by giving your virtual attendees the opportunity for a Q&A with an expert speaker, or VIP access to a small and exclusive group chat with them. Think of this as allowing some of your audience to visit the ‘green room’ after a TV show.

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