Digital Fandom Fan Engagement Gamification InCrowd sportsbiz

Meet The Member: “Gamification and fan engagement technologies present a huge amount of untapped potential to incentivise fans”

September 7, 2023

Fan engagement is central to driving fans to the stadiums, convincing them to spend over $50 billion annually on their favorite teams and leagues, as per Deloitte. iSportconnect spoke with InCrowd’s Joshua Holland-Bedson and Ben Hayward to know more about the organisation’s strategy when it comes to enhancing fan experiences. 

Please tell us about your roles at InCrowd.

Josh: I am the Product Manager for Fan Experience. I look after everything around how we can improve the quality of what we’re delivering to fans in terms of engagement and their overall experience across owned digital platforms, working with  clients in different sports  to learn and apply best practice to the industry as a whole.

Ben: I have been at InCrowd since 2015 and as we’ve gone through huge growth periods my role has evolved. At the moment, I am The Product Training Manager, training our customers to achieve the very best outcome from using InCrowd products, and I am also the in-house Gamification Specialist, working with Josh to develop InCrowd’s offering in the  digital fandom and gamification space.

Recently SEG3 was held at the Emirates Stadium – the Industry’s largest event on Web3 in sport, entertainment and gaming. What was your one big takeaway? 

Josh: There was a wide span of organisations looking into the web3 world and where that’s potentially going to take the industry. However, at InCrowd we think web2 still has so much potential and opportunity with vast untapped areas of value that need to be maximised first – there shouldn’t be a knee-jerk jump to web3 but a natural evolution from web2. To achieve this, there are certain technology gaps and hurdles that need to be overcome, but really, that’s what we saw; that there’s definitely a huge web2 opportunity before jumping into the web3 worlds.

Ben: It’s about understanding the audience really. Gamification and fan engagement technologies present a huge amount of untapped potential to incentivise fans to engage with sport and adopt new habits. These technologies have the potential to drive great things across the industry. From creating thriving fan communities, helping fans of all backgrounds and ability to feel closer to the heart of the action, encouraging and driving positive social changes and making every fan experience truly memorable.

The positive social benefits to this provide an incredibly exciting proposition to sport and fans whether it’s: encouraging people to get fitter; helping to drive the amazing growth of women’s sports, or anything else. We need to look at the sports fans that we’re trying to target and work out what kind of technology they’re used to, what’s ubiquitous and self explanatory to pick up and use, and to use tech in an engaging way that makes sense to them. It’s about bringing technology to them wherever they are in the world, rather than expecting them to seek out new technologies which, for many people, present huge barriers to entry.

Digital fandom is something that didn’t really exist 10 years ago. How do you define it and why has it become something sports rights holders need to use?

Josh: Fandom as a whole has always been around. From fans turning up to the event, collecting pins or badges, buying match day programmes and building up to that experience of being in the stadium, feeling that emotion. Digital fandom is a result of the evolutionary change into a more digital world. We all have smartphones, and sports organisations have started to take notice of this in regards to their digital transformation journeys. It’s now about how to actually interact with fans outside of those traditional sporting moments, how do you get their views and how do you share relevant content with them throughout the week, instead of just on game day. Digital fandom is a combination of personalization of gamification elements like rewards, leaning on that human want for winning. It’s bringing fans closer to the organisation, athletes and staff and strengthening that connection.

Ben: It’s also really important to think about what happens outside of the context of a match day. For instance, it’s well worth evaluating the period of time between matches; the buildup before a match etc, and then looking at how this relates to sports fans interacting on their WhatsApp groups with other fans; fans in the pub having a laugh with their mates; fans chatting around the watercooler in the workplace and sharing memes around. As a fan, going to your favourite platform to engage with the conversation, news and banter that’s being shared around, is at the forefront of your mind the whole time – that’s what fandom really is. It’s constantly happening and it defines how you’re thinking and how you’re interacting with fellow fans, friends and family on a daily basis. What good digital fandom products do, is ask the question “How can we place ourselves right in the middle of that conversation / at the forefront of fan thinking”.

Ben, how important is it to understand the audience that you’re trying to target when trying to get fans on board with digital fandom?

Ben: It’s absolutely crucial. If you just have a look at the spectrum of different fans, you’ve got millennials and Gen Z-ers who have grown up in a very different environment to some of the older generations and more traditional sports fans. 

It’s really important to try and understand how they’re interacting with their sports, whether they’re interacting more with a club or a particular player, but also on what platforms they’re interacting. How do they like to engage and to what frequency they like to engage?

We’re seeing more and more that younger fans want to digest shorter form, visual content more regularly, which is more up-close and personal with their favourite players, experiencing their daily lives and life from their perspective. Whereas traditional fans might be engaging on a less frequent basis but perhaps spending longer per session, and with a more editorial focus as opposed to a more social media focus. 

It’s really important to understand those demographics when we’re talking about applying technology to build engaging digital products, and in particular how we can replicate real life habits in the digital space. It’s about evaluating the technologies and trying to bring those two worlds together. We also see a desire to engage on a deeper level than merely consuming content – fans are willing to do more to feel part of their community (fan-base). 

We’ve got millennials and Gen Z’s on this end of the spectrum and then on the other end, you’ve got your older fans. Our focus is on how can we bring them together to create a digital platform, where everybody can participate in at some level.  The idea of creating a digital fandom-based product should be all geared around how you can get every fan engaged and loving your product in some way, and that’s likely to be different for different groups of fans. 

To that end, considering how you can replicate some of the aspects of real-life fandom, but in a more condensed digital format, is a great place to start. That then brings about this reciprocating effect of people engaging people and the positive feeling that they’re participating and being rewarded socially for that. 

Josh: Worldwide fandoms are more and more prevalent, with bigger clubs having  many, many fans all over the world.  These fans can’t attend games, they can’t get to the stadium but what they can do is you can be involved in a digital world. So it’s really reflecting that in motion, that understanding of what a fan in the stadium absolutely loves, and reflecting that in a digital way that can be shared across the world.

Digital fandom is something that is typically associated with younger fans, how can you make sure older fans are included in this as well?

Josh: This is something that is absolutely central to InCrowd as we build out our digital fandom products in terms of making it as inclusive as possible. How do we make it so that technology doesn’t create a hurdle for those fans that are a little technically adverse, building a platform that applies to everybody. So certain features like being able to select and choose your routes of entry; this could be more digitally enhanced, you may have certain additional screens, deeper  personalization, or you might just go straight through to the homepage, which is what you’re looking for. 

In this modern world, there is no longer such a massive divide between millenials and Gen Z’s who are both completely used to using their phones versus your earlier generations who are perhaps more tech adverse. Using tech day to day has become second nature to everyone and so continuing to bridge that gap is our main focus. 

Ben: We have to understand that a mobile phone is an extension of ourselves nowadays. For us, one of the key things we really took away from #SEG3 is that although emerging technologies are great, when a fan is rushing out of the house on a Match Day, they’re not necessarily thinking about grabbing their VR headset to take along with them!

So what we’ve been really thinking about since SEG3, is actually looking at the technology that everybody has at their disposal. I think it’s fairly clear that the key technology really is the mobile phone. Sports fan or not, I believe we live in a world whereby when you open an app or when you go to a website you expect to see something which is personalised to you in some way. I’m not necessarily talking about adverts here, I’m talking about the actual experience that you get when you go to the app or website; for example, you pull out your BBC Weather app, and it immediately goes to your current location, you don’t have to tap anything, it just immediately finds your location using the GPS signal. That’s a really good example of simple but effective personalisation which gives everyone (no matter who they are) the content/info they desire instantly, forming a real USP to using that product. As a user, we’re reducing the number of taps, swipes and scrolls that you have to do on your screen to get to the information you want, be that the scores, latest news, the player you follow, or anything else.

So, as Josh was pointing out, for sports fans, it could be very different in terms of the content that I want to access as a millennial, or a Gen Z, compared to maybe a more traditional fan. But what’s important is that we provide a digital experience which enables fans of all cohorts and demographics to personalise their experience to make our product serve their needs, and to therefore be the product they choose to use above others. Its very important that these fans are included and understood alongside digital age generations,, and that’s part of InCrowd’s bigger picture of digital fandom.

What are some of the best examples of digital fandom that you’ve seen in the world of sport?

Ben: The first one that comes to mind is in eSports. Rocket League, for those who aren’t familiar, is basically soccer/football, played with cars in a virtual environment and it has a huge worldwide player-base. One of the really great digital fandom tools that they make use of, is that when the eSport is streamed on Twitch, (the big video game and eSports streaming platform), fans are rewarded for every minute they’re engaging via the Twitch platform, by unlocking digital items in the Rocket League game that can be applied to your personal profile.

In Rocket League, your personal profile is the car that you play with, so when you’re playing with your mates, you’re able to show off the items that you earned from engagement. This, among other means of earning digital personalisations, means that fans can visually represent their fandom by showing off to other fans – a bit like how sports fans might buy a jersey, keep a programme or ticket stub, etc.

Another one that I love to talk about is Strava. Obviously, this platform is more about exercise than it is sport, but it provides an excellent example of the social side of digital fandom, with functionality that enables you to engage between communities and show off your personal fitness achievements to others. Strava rewards you with the kudos enabling you to build up your own personal profile and sense of pride in your achievements.

There are also a few other examples. Recently, Barcelona did a partnership with Spotify, curating playlists around specific players and matching musical tastes – it was a huge hit in the InCrowd office and of course across a really nice example of getting fans closer to the sporting heroes they love, and for me, that was a really fun one to engage with.

Josh: Yes, the NBA have done well with their new app. They have this mass of app users already so used to this type of technology, wandering around in the real world and collecting  various rewards. They already had a substantial base audience and so have maximised on that opportunity with new gaming aspects and social style content in their apps. It shows that these types of technologies to engage traditional fandom and gamification are out there. It’s 100% about taking the necessary steps, small steps to building up that engagement with this new technology – going back to what we said about web2 versus web3, those that are successful are not taking risky big leaps but are building on well planned steps to success. For me, the  NBA is setting the benchmark here, and we know of other sports organisations who are starting to make really exciting and positive moves in this space.


With all of these examples, there is a trifecta of three different components that we think is almost the golden ratio for developing engaging digital products. And wherever one of these three components is lacking the product ends up falling down in some way. Ultimately, what you want is fans coming to your platform, realising that they can benefit from it, and then re-engaging.

Gamification, along with the activations and content to which it applies is the first of these three components. These are the drivers which give users things to engage with, they build a layer of new interactivity on top of the sport or other core concept that you want to make engaging. If you look at Duolingo, for example, what it’s doing is it’s building this concept of a streak – it’s an activation on top of language learning. 

Second, we can look at profile building which is essentially our way of saying “your digital proof of engagement”. In the case of Strava, for example, this is creating a history of all of your activities, but in Duolingo this is adding badges and unlocking achievements and XP points. The profile basically provides us with a place where all interactions through gamification, activation, and content are recorded and displayed. 

This leads on to the third component which is socialisation and reward. We’ve touched on reward already, so focusing on social: what’s really important for any successful digital fandom products, is to build a sense of community. And that’s particularly relevant for sports fans because of course, community is at the heart of fandom in the real world. So what we’re doing is we’re replicating that physical interaction in a digital environment. And when you pair that with the profile, which contains all of your personal accolades, it allows fans to unlock peer-based social value as a reward for their engagement. 

If one of those elements falls away, for example, if you don’t have a social component, then your profile just sits on your mobile phone doing absolutely nothing at all, no one else in the fan-base gets to see it. By creating a strong social environment which rewards fans for their interactions, these components play off each other to create a Digital Fandom feedback-loop that starts to become part of the general parlance that is used day to day within friend groups, fan networks in the real world. Fantasy leagues are a great example of this. There’s always a lot of chat about that across socials every match/game week!

Josh: I think from a digital fandom perspective like you said, it’s about achieving all those components and making sure that they all work well together. I think there’s a lot of clubs and sports at the moment that are bridging the first gap, but they’re missing other components, causing them to perhaps struggle to gain the traction of making sure that the fans are rewarded, or ensuring the fans are continuously engaged.

How do you make sure that digital fandom isn’t another one of these trends that we see fade out?

Josh: There’s no denying that the future is about creating engagement and creating community, building relationships and making everything more accessible and Digital Fandom is such a driving force here. Fans used to be about the season ticket – where is my seat, where do I buy a programme, where do I watch my team? Now, fans are also about information and involvement -where do I find what I need, what does that mean to me?  

They want to know what their club is doing in the offseason, during the weeks in between the games. They want to know about specific players and their lives (take Miami and Messi for example!). If you have a digital fandom component that sits within that new world it creates significant added digital value for the fans as well as the organisation and brand partners.

Because if you don’t attend the games, and if you don’t go and see the games being played, you don’t get the kudos (and subsequent dopamine hit) of being able to say I saw Messi score his first goal, I was also personally rewarded for that and I have a record of it – it’s that extra value layer. We’ve always got this concept of a club’s legacy and the club’s history being built up through the years of what happened, who played for them, when did they win the title and now digital fandom has created this fan history from the moment they start on their journey as a digitally engaged fan.

And I think from a rights holders perspective, that is super powerful because it’s continuously keeping the fans engaged with a significant sponsor driven digital asset and it is giving them more insight into their fanbase in terms of feedback. Look at Wrexham; a club that had a very low starting point, proving you can build anything with digital fandom, and you can really create a massive club with not a lot of investment. These components exist, it’s just about combining them together.

Ben: Digital fandom has been around in many guises over the years, and in its most common form it’s the mobile apps and websites that you use every day – it’s allowed fans across the globe to get closer to their club and connect them to the fandom community where otherwise they wouldn’t be able to do so. It’s hard to imagine sports without digital aspects to fandom nowadays. Sports fandom isn’t going anywhere, all we’re doing through the digital space is enhancing it to make it easier than ever to access, turning fandom from a localised concept into a global one.

Looking at the commercial side, when you build a product which resonates completely with fans, the commercialisation of your product comes very naturally, since you’ve already built a digital environment which your fans get a lot of value out of. So in other words, if your digital fandom product provides fans with a unique proposition to their fandom that they can’t get anywhere else (proximity to the team/league; activities to do; reward; community) you can easily start to monetize elements of digital fandoms a natural and integrated way, far beyond traditional the traditional ad-banner approach. 

Fans are already placing value in the digital platform that you’ve created so sponsoring digital assets like badges, challenges and rewards is a natural step. This way, brands can become a real part of the conversation and become intrinsically linked to tangible digital experiences which fans want to engage with.

Josh: For InCrowd, existing within a data driven Digital Fandom is the future of the sports fan and the beauty of it is that it can be achieved by any and every organisation as it’s such a buildable end product. You just have to take that first step!

Want to learn more about creating value in Web2, the Digital Fandom landscape or InCrowds Digital Fandom products? 

Email at to get in touch with Josh and Ben!

Digital Fandom Fan Engagement Gamification InCrowd sportsbiz