Arby's and Buffalo Wild Wings have a promising new strategy -- and it has nothing to do with food

Gfinity eSports arena in Fulham, West London.Gfinity/FlickrGfinity’s eSports arena in Fulham, West London.

The future of the restaurant industry? According to some chains, it’s eSports.

Arby’s and Buffalo Wild Wings are turning to eSports to attract customers and battle against fast-casual competitors. ESports are essentially competitive video gaming, and draw roughly 250 million players and viewers a year. 

“We are continuing to differentiate our brand for the long-term by embracing two emerging sports: soccer and eSports,” Buffalo Wild Wings CEO Sally Smith said in a call with analysts on Tuesday. “We’re seizing the opportunity of eSports, or competitive video gaming, as it attracts a young, digitally connected and engaged fan.”

On Friday nights, Buffalo Wild Wings — a chain whose business model depends on sports fans turning out to watch games with beers and wings — is beginning to show eSports competitions. According to Smith, viewing parties have drawn more than 60 eSports fans to a eSport-friendly location in Sherman Oaks, California.

Both Arby’s and Buffalo Wild Wings became initial sponsors of Turner’s ELeague in May, allowing both chains to air ads on TBS and though online streaming service Twitch during eSport events. Arby’s serves as the Official Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) partner, while Buffalo Wild Wings is the Official Casual Dining partner.

“We’ve learned through connecting with our guests in social media that gaming resonates with them,” Rob Lynch, Arby’s CMO and brand president, said in a statement in May. “We’re looking to foster a deeper connection in the eSports community by creating content for ELeague geared specifically for the diehard fans tuning in.”

ESports is a rapidly growing industry, with 250 million people watching or playing eSports in 2015 (up 13% year over year), according to market research firm Newzoo. In 2016, the industry could reach $463 million in revenue, and is expected to hit $1.1 billion by 2019.

Sporting events drive huge amounts of sales in the restaurant industry. The Super Bowl, for example, is a boon for take out businesses, and UFC fans flood bars and restaurants airing fights.

A slight tweak in sports schedules have been known to cause significant sales damage at Buffalo Wild Wings, adding urgency to the need to attract new types of sports fans.

Still, eSports have not quite found their place in the restaurant business. Vice’s Motherboard reported in June that despite Buffalo Wild Wing’s eSports partnership, most locations of the chain failed to air events, with many employees confused as to what eSports were.  

ESports represent a huge opportunity for the restaurant industry, as a new platform for reaching millions of millennial customers, a key target audience for any company.

Plus, there is an added bonus for chains such as Buffalo Wild Wings that need to present a reason for people to sit down and enjoy their food. As fast-casual chains make it constantly speedier and more convenient to get food, casual chains have
struggled to keep up. 

As a result, chains such as Applebee’s, Olive Garden, and
TGI Friday’s have revamped their brands to become more appealing to modern customers. ESports could similarly provide a unique draw for customers, giving them a space to watch an event that few bars and restaurants are currently providing. 

Today, restaurants have the opportunity to use eSports to reach customers, whether through marketing or by airing events. The only problem is, as seen in the case of Buffalo Wild Wings, they may first need to educate their managers on what exactly eSports are.

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