While often conflated, even by major esports publications, esports is only a small subsection of the gaming world. Esports are video games played inside a professional competitive structure such as a league or tournament. Even if industry projections that the esports industry will cross $1B in revenue in 2020 held true, that would give it less than 1% of the total $120B gaming industry.
So why are brands focusing on esports instead of gaming in general? As always, it's complicated. Esports creates the most-watched events in the gaming world. League of Legends Championships, CSGO Majors, and Dota 2’s The International are consistently on top in terms of gaming viewership.
But these major esports events only happen a few times a year. Most regular season competitions can average about the same viewership as top streamers. Some games like Fortnite will have influencers with much higher viewers than even the official broadcast channels. Other games such as Rocket League will see viewership on official broadcasts dwarf influencers.
There are two main types of esports sponsorships brands need to be aware of. Esports events (plus subsequent broadcasts) and esports teams.
The Art of the Esports Event Sponsorship
In Paris, France, gamers and confused tourists gather around a tent just blocks from the mid-renovation Notre Dame. It’s the MasterCard Nexus, the home base of the credit card giant’s activations at League of Legends World Championships. The global partnership with Riot Games for League of Legends esports was MasterCard’s first jump into the world of esports event sponsorship and they provided a masterclass in how to connect a massive brand with gamers.
MasterCard may have been new to esports, but the company is familiar with global sporting events. From the Champions League to Roland Garros to the Rugby World Cup, MasterCard has been a mainstay in sporting worlds. But esports provides a new set of challenges. At Worlds 2019, MasterCard proved they were up to it.
"We didn't want to over commercialise it because it was about [creating] trust with these fans," said Brian Lancey, VP and Global Head of Sponsorships for MasterCard at Advertising Week in 2019. "We're a financial institution... we're not a Nike, we're not a Red Bull, we're not a really cool brand."
By the end of the event, MasterCard was welcomed by esports fans. The company followed up the Worlds experience by partnering with G2, a team from Europe that lost in the finals. Now MasterCard is being integrated directly into the League of Legends map in a first-of-its-kind stadium signage opportunity in esports.
It’s safe to say MasterCard has been pleased with the company’s foray into esports.
What Types of Esports Events are Out There?
Franchised Esports Leagues
- Publisher-run, top-level esports with lofty buy-ins attracting traditional sports owners
- E.g. League of Legends Esports, Overwatch League, Call of Duty League
- These are some of the most-watched, and most attended esports events
- Event partners include massive brands like MasterCard, Toyota and Coca-Cola
- Some leagues were moving towards regional models bringing in more brands
- Northland Ford, a regional car dealer, sponsored a Call of Duty League event in February
- Barclays and Curry’s PC World Sponsored the UK League Championship
Third-Party Esports Tournaments
- Non-publisher supported but still massive esports with major brand partners
- Tournament organisers include ESL, Dreamhack and Blast Premiere
- Third-party tournaments are more common for esports like CS:GO and Dota 2
- These tournaments tend to be more localised while presenting both long-term and short-term sponsorship opportunities
- Third-party esports tournament partners include Mercedes-Benz, SAP and DHL
- Many other brands have worked with various events over the years
Branded White Label Tournaments
- Some brands prefer to own the entire production format, and organise their own events themselves or enlist the help of a third party.
- Red Bull, Bud Light and Honda have created successful tournaments
- Third party partners include Battlefly, FACEIT and Toornament
- Create the tournament, award the prizes and reap the positive brand exposure
- As esports has grown, more local competitions have popped up creating sponsorships
- E.g. Super League Gaming, N3rd St. Gamers, Allied Esports
- These events make grassroots activations possible for smaller budgets
- Brands include Rothman Orthopedics, Mike and Ike and Zipchair
- There are also venue-based activations where brands host gaming events and bring in customers. Walmart, TopGolf and Cinemark are hosting gaming events with esports partners
- Esports is taking over campuses, both college and high school
- There are over 130 varsity college esports programs in the US
- Almost every school has some sort of gaming club as well
- High School Esports are becoming a part of most school’s offerings
- PlayVS, the leader in HS esports, raised $50M in funds in 2019
- Provides opportunities for localised brands to reach gamers
Esports Organisations and the Influencers that Come With
On the flip side of the events are the teams that compete in them, i.e. the MasterCard activation moving from League of Legends (an event sponsorship) to a G2 Esports (esports organisation) sponsorship.
Unlike sports teams, esports organisations vary wildly from one another. The simple explanation is that one organisation can have anything from three to ten teams on its roster each competing in a different esport. Organisations also employ influencers whose dedicated job is to stream and create content - almost acting as talent agencies. Professional players are often influencers also, with many choosing to stream and make content as their careers wind down.
Just like how partnering each sports team is going to be different from one another, each esports team is also going to differ. While sports teams can generally count on similar demographics across a league, esports organisations differ depending on focused games, history of success and investment in the scene. Check out the profiles for these two teams with a similar total social media following, and how their audiences differ Pain Gaming vs Team Liquid.
Organisations can also acquire new rosters or dissolve existing ones. For example, many teams are currently acquiring rosters for a new game which is highly anticipated as an esport, called Valorant. Many have also invested in PUBG Mobile teams in India, though the outcomes of the government's ban on the game are still to be seen.
GEEIQ’s filters help brands search for the right organisation which fits their goals. With so much variability between teams, that searchability is key in finding the right partner.
Who Are the Top Esports Teams?
To give an idea of the differences between organisations, let's look at three of the most valuable esports organisations according to Forbes. They run the gambit between a focus on content creation to a focus on competitive success.
One of the most successful organisations in competitive play is Cloud9. Often stylised as C9, the baby blue esports organisation is a top fixture in a variety of esports. Cloud9’s brand partners have included PUMA, BMW, AT&T, Red Bull, Microsoft, Kaiser Permanente and EPOS.
The organisation's crown jewel is the League of Legends team which is the most consistently successful North American LoL team on the world stage. With eleven professional teams, they have one of the most robust rosters of any esports organisation. On top of that, C9 has around 10 streamers and content creators, though the organisation's primary following comes from competitive teams. C9’s main team social media channels have reach of 2.6m but they also have the opportunity to capitalise on big viewership from esports tournaments, especially when they win.
On the flip side is FaZe Clan. When you go to FaZeClan.com, it’s not players lifting a trophy but new merchandise collaborations that greet you. FaZe’s esports teams don’t even have a dropdown option. While FaZe competes in a variety of shooter esports, the real focus is on YouTube and Twitch. Brand partners like GFUEL, Verizon, Nissan, Beats and SteelSeries receive value from the vast social audiences of over 52 million and consistent content creation. Faze Clan also partners with various brands for one-off activations, most notably with Champion and Manchester City for limited-edition collections that have both sold out.
Then there’s TSM that dips into both worlds. According to GEEIQ’s data TSM has a social media reach of just under 8m, but a combined roster following of over 60m. Started as a competitive League of Legends team, TSM is still consistently a top team in the game with nine rosters across other games. While League of Legends is the most valuable competitive team, TSM cashed in on the Fortnite craze more than any other organisation. The organisation acquired their Fortnite roster before most organisations caught on to the battle-royale phenomenon and shot themselves into the second most-followed esports organisation. Now the roster of 12 Fortnite players spans between top competitive players to huge influencers like Myth and Hamlinz. With success at both competitive play and influencer management, TSM highlights the duality of the modern esports organisation.
Each organisation has their own brand and benefits. Choosing the right partner will depend on your brands’ desired audience, the brand affiliations or associations you are looking to establish and even on who they are already partnered with. This information is available on each profile available on GEEIQ.
What Brands Need to Succeed in Esports
Be Flexible and Creative
For esports events, there are still many familiar sponsorship methods tied to sports stadiums like caster desk products, sponsor banners and stadium signage. But that only scratches the surface of what is possible in esports.
Louis Vuitton and the brand’s sponsorship alongside MasterCard at the 2019 Worlds is a great example of a brand going above and beyond the traditional sponsorship to succeed in esports.
Each year, the League of Legends World Championships put on a grand opening ceremony like the Superbowl halftime show, which MasterCard has sponsored for the last 2 years. In 2019, Louis Vuitton joined the partnership.
Louis Vuitton created a custom carrier case for the trophy which was displayed centre-stage, and also designed in-game character skins which were integrated into the opening ceremony through augmented reality performance visuals. For a luxury fashion brand used to sponsoring events like the FIFA World Cup, their combined in-game and esports strategy added other pillars that made the brand stand out and created long term exposure.
While event strategies can be successful by modelling traditional sports, team sponsorships can be a bit more unique to capture more attention. Jersey patches and logo placement on social media are analogous, but the content that comes with a partnership does not have to be.
TSM and Dr. Pepper had a beloved series of activations. One of them was called TeamSodaMid and was a video parody of the Power Rangers. With around 700,000 views and 59,000 engagements across Facebook and Instagram where the ad is still available, the campaign highlighted the fun and creativity needed to connect with esports audiences. Another Dr. Pepper campaign video featured the TSM players singing and dancing as a boy band with a unique Dr. Pepper tune.
BMW also made a major splash in esports by simultaneously signing a deal with five major organisations. The common thread was a great League of Legends team and identical branded content all released at the same time (here is our engagement analysis on it). But what made BMW stand out was allowing the organisations to create content for the brand. Creativity is key and BMW allowed esports organisations to be their source of it. Here’s what G2 created.
Understand the Demographics
Esports is a catch-all term applied to a niche industry that comprises hundreds of different parts. The biggest game in India is different from the biggest game in America and similarly different from the biggest game in China. League of Legends offers the most expansive structure but when Nike wanted to get involved with the game, they did so with the Chinese league, not the one based in North America. Two years ago, Overwatch was seen as the hottest new esport but now, many top players have switched to Valorant. Keeping a pulse on how demographics are shifting between games and how teams are adapting is crucial to finding esports success.
Games including Fortnite trend towards a younger audience while games like CS:GO capture an older one. In Brazil, mobile esports are the most popular, in America people play primarily on consoles and in South Korea PC gaming is in control.
Knowing which demographics you want to reach helps pinpoint the correct event and team sponsors for your brand. GEEIQ’s technology takes the guesswork out of finding the right partner by offering in-depth searching to match the exact criteria your brand is looking for.
Embrace the Meme
Live chats (sometimes known as Twitch chat, after the leading live streaming platform) during esports events move a mile a minute. Over the course of tournaments that range from one day to months, memes within the community begin to take shape. Teams come with built-in memes twice-baked over years of fandom. Sometimes the memes even involve brand partners.
Mercedes-Benz was an early esports adopter sponsoring an ESL Dota 2 event in 2017. During that event, members of the Twitch community started parodying the Mercedes advert that was played repeatedly throughout the tournament. Towards the end of the event, Mercedes-Benz joined the fun with a tweet embracing Twitch chat’s language. Reddit loved it.
The meme doesn’t even need to be about the brand partner - the goal is just for the brand to show they are in tune with the audience. In the MasterCard example, during Worlds 2019 a certain player’s dad was gaining a lot of attention. G2 Esports’ player, Caps has a supportive father who was often shown on broadcast and was a meme within the community.
Embracing the meme shows a brand is listening, and also that they are willing to roll with the punches. There’s plenty of banter in esports and fans are willing to accept brands in, if they show commitment and understanding of the community. DHL, a longstanding sponsor of ESL, has had fans wear branded t-shirts and chant D-H-L during matches - completely of their own volition. That’s acceptance of a sponsorship at the most in-your-face level possible.