The world of professional gaming leagues has taken off! Competitive online gaming, otherwise known as esports, boasts growing online audiences on streaming platforms such as Twitch and Facebook Gaming. The pause in live sporting events and the general increase in people seeking entertainment online during the pandemic has led to bigger captive audiences for gaming and live-streaming. There was a reported 75% increase in people playing video games during the peak of the pandemic. Esports was already seeing an uptick in viewership even before this and the latest figures predict there will be over 646 million viewers by 2023. So there’s no surprise that brands outside the gaming arena are looking for ways to reach this new online audience.
Brand partnerships have been fuelling the growth of esports since the beginning, and collaborations with gaming and technology brands (endemic brands) are fairly common. The likes of Intel and the Electronic Sports League are investing 100M$ in esports over the next three years. But we’re seeing more brands from outside the esports niche taking an interest in the opportunities here. Brands that might seem to be a left-field choice for esports sponsorships want to get in front of these gaming audiences, and for good reason. The popularity of live-streamed gaming content is huge, in April this year, users on Twitch streamed 1.49 billion hours of gaming content, and brands are keen to leverage this long-form content format. This is an unrivaled opportunity for brands whose target audience crosses over with the largely male, millennial audience that watches esports. In the US, 22% of male Millennials frequently watch esports. It’s suddenly much easier to see the strategic appeal for alcohol, entertainment, automotive, and fashion brands to invest in this space.
Non-endemic brands can get involved with esports through sponsorships, advertising, and partnerships. We’ll take a look at how these are playing out in the industry right now, laying the groundwork for long-term non-endemic brand partnerships in the future.
Sponsorships in esports
Brand sponsorship is a classic model used for traditional sporting events that have been transferred to the world of professional online gaming competitions. In esports leagues there are often several official brand sponsors, for example, the Overwatch League has previously named TMobile as their wireless sponsor, and Coca-Cola as the official global beverage sponsor. Looking at Coca-Cola as an example of a non-endemic brand sponsorship, you might be surprised to learn the brand was an early adopter of such sponsorships, starting as far back as 2001. Earlier sponsorships included Riot Games’ League of Legends under the Coke Zero brand. Sponsorships remain a key channel for driving brand visibility during the streams and through branded merchandise such as Coca-Cola’s customized coke bottles promoting the Overwatch League teams.
Another creative example of how brand sponsorships are working in the esports industry is KIA’s sponsorship of the League of Legends European Championship (LEC). Their sponsorship has included providing KIA vehicles to all the LEC players during the tournament, as well as creating online content. The 2020 Summer season of LEC was the first to be played entirely remotely, so the importance of capitalizing on video content and social media was key. The automotive brand sponsored a promotional music video for the league called ‘I want the LEC back’ featuring key players providing the vocals and showcased KIA motors during the clip. The clip has generated more than 600K views on Youtube and created even more excitement and exposure for the event with gaming influencers posting reaction videos on Twitch and YouTube when they watched the clip for the first time.
The potential for advertising directly during esports streaming has been put into action this year. Riot Games offered in-game advertising during official matches in a bid to emulate the advertising opportunities of real-life sporting events. Going beyond branded merchandise and brand materials to offer advertising banners during gameplay was a big step in esports. It provides a well-rounded approach to brand partnerships, offering brands multiple touchpoints in the lead up to and during competitions to reach key audiences. Mastercard, a non-endemic brand, and Alienware, a computer hardware brand were among the first to have display ads that were woven into the gameplay of League of Legends. This has been cleverly introduced as the banners are only visible to spectators of the match and not to the players so it minimizes any potential distraction during the game. Mastercard was able to leverage in-game advertising as a non-endemic brand due to its wider investment in bringing one-off experiences to esports fans. They have built trust with esports audiences, who are notoriously wary of over-commercialization in the industry, through a long-standing partnership. Mastercard has offered up real-life and in-game digital rewards for gamers to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the League of Legends World Championship, further cementing their place in the esports arena.
The move to include in-game advertising surely signals more digital advertising opportunities to come for endemic and non-endemic brands alike. Opening up advertising opportunities to a wide range of brands in this way will no doubt be a positive driving force as esports continue to grow.
Non-endemic brand partnerships
When two world-class brands team up to bring their fans an elevated brand experience, we expect huge creativity. And that’s exactly what the Riot Games and Spotify partnership delivered! Whilst being a non-endemic brand partnership, the synergies between online gaming and music streaming brands are evident given the importance of music in creating an exciting and immersive atmosphere during gameplay. The partnership with Spotify led to some truly innovative content creation for the gaming fanbase. A podcast series featuring interviews with key players and behind-the-scenes insights into how the iconic audio used in the competitions has been created. They are working directly with the gaming and Spotify community to build dedicated playlists as part of a League of Legends Spotify hub, giving fans access to hours of carefully curated music content to stream. This is such a successful brand partnership as the content is perfectly attuned to online platforms and compliments online esports streaming, whilst providing an interactive brand experience.
We’ve seen that when brands put the needs of the gaming community first, and seek to genuinely offer fun and unique experiences to this growing online esports audience, the potential for non-endemic brands is huge! The gaming industry is opening up to working with non-endemic brands that can help take the sport from strength to strength and reach a wider audience by working with household names such as Coca-Cola and Mastercard. The world of online professional gaming and creative digital brand campaigns goes hand-in-hand as we have seen above, so watch this space for even more non-endemic brand partnerships coming up in the future!