Mainstream Brands Eye Esports Opportunity

As the UK Sponsorship Awards prepares to launch its new-look Gaming Sponsorship categories for 2019, Andy Fry runs the rule over some of the brands breaking into esports. 

There are still plenty of people (mainly over 30) who don’t really get what esports is all about. But there’s no question the sector is moving mainstream. Digital research firm Superdata estimates that the market generated revenues of US$1.5 billion in 2017. Looking ahead, it expects esports to rake in a staggering US$2.1bn by 2021. By that time, industry insiders reckon more than one billion people will have watched an esports event.

With the vast majority of that audience made up of younger demographics, esports is clearly an important opportunity for brands. But it hasn’t proved easy for them to gain traction in the sector for a couple of reasons. The first is that the market is very fragmented. Unlike the world of traditional sports, it’s not always easy to work out exactly what or who brands should be sponsoring and how they should activate against it. The second is that esports fans are deeply suspicious of brands that simply seek to badge teams and events within the sector. Any commercial partner perceived of as inauthentic is likely to get shredded instantly by gamers on social media platforms. And if that happens it can take years to win back their trust. Added to all of the above, esports still isn’t that easy to measure compared to more orthodox marketing platforms. It’s getting better, but metrix can still be a stumbling block for brands.

It’s for these reasons that the most successful brands in the esports arena to date have been endemic brands – i.e., those that directly contribute to the enjoyment of the community. But there’s no question this is changing. With esports rights owners and non-endemic brands both keen to join forces, a growing number of mainstream brands have tested the waters. Here we look at a dozen of the more high-profile examples of brands from mainstream categories breaking into esports:

Visa: Flying the flag for financial services, Visa unveiled a sponsorship of leading European eSports team SK Gaming in 2017. Signed for an initial 12 month period, the deal saw Visa give financial backing to the Cologne-based team, best known as world champions of Counterstrike: Global Offensive in 2017. Explaining the deal, Suzy Brown, director of sponsorships and partnerships at Visa, said: “Pro gaming has added a new dimension to sport. By putting ourselves at the heart of the action we can build affinity with millions of millennial gaming enthusiasts and confirm our position as a global innovator.”

Coca-Cola: It’s no real surprise to see Coca-Cola chasing down millennials via esports. The company made a big statement in 2014 when it partnered with Riot on their League of Legends franchise. Interestingly, the brand said at the time that esports was a more effective way for it to reach young males than NFL Superbowl. Coke has continued to build its relationship with esports via activities such as eCOPA Coca-Cola, a FIFA 18 Global Series qualifier. Open to all gamers free of charge, the event is regarded as one of the most ambitious attempts yet by a brand to reach out to the grass roots gaming community. (For the sake of balance, it’s worth noting that PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew is also one of the best-loved brands among esports fans).

Doritos: Soft drinks and snacks may not be endemic to esports, but it’s easy to picture a gaming fan settling in for an extended session with a bottle of pop and a bag of crisps by their side. Like Coke, Doritos is one brand to have seized the opportunity in a meaningful way. As an example, it teamed with Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm game to support the launch of its new Blaze flavour. The partnership makes particular sense because the game has a character called Blaze. In a blog on the subject, Weber Shandwick VP Will Cutrone said the partnership’s on-pack activation created the opportunity to “sustain social conversation around Doritos and Heroes of the Storm” while selling more bags of Doritos and enabling Blizzard to recruit new players for the game from Doritos buyers. A win-win.

McDonalds: Fast food and esports? Another no-brainer. In 2017, McDonald’s became the first commercial partner of the StarCraft 2 World Championship (WCS) esports series. This year, it lent its brand name to the Spanish soccer league’s (La Liga) new esports gaming tournament. There’s an interesting thread here, which links back to Coca-Cola’s activities. Some brands have decided that the best way to get into esports is in partnership with traditional sports brands (clubs, leagues, federations), which are also desperate to target the market.

Snickers: 2016 saw Snickers become the official chocolate bar of Eleague, a televised competition formed via an alliance between Turner Broadcasting and WME/IMG. Obviously enamoured by the sector, 2018 saw Snickers named as official partner of US-based esports organisation FlyQuest – the brand’s first team-based partnership. “We have been exploring partnership opportunities on the team side for quite some time now,” said Michael Italia, Sr. brand manager, Snickers. “In working with FlyQuest, we felt they would provide us with the best opportunity to align with some of the biggest titles in esports. Their passionate fan base and desire to grow the entire community through unique activations aligned perfectly with our goals.” 

While the esports community is keen to stress that its top stars are healthy physical specimens (often having come into gaming after experiencing a real-world sports injury), there’s no question fast food and snack brands are less likely to attract critical attention backing esports compared to sports.

Red Bull: You can pretty much always rely on Red Bull to be one of the first brands to get involved in seismic cultural shifts like esports. The brand first got into bed with gamers in 2006 and has been supporting events and teams ever since, also – as you’d expect - creating content off the back of its investment. One of the brand’s most interesting moves this year was the launch of an esports bar in a trendy part of London. Called Red Bull Gaming Sphere, the venue has PCs, TVs, headsets and state of the art consoles to cater for hardcore esports fans. The company has also pioneered training facilities for gamers.

Vodafone: In April 2018, Vodafone became a Premium Partner of leading esports event organiser ESL. As part of the deal it is sponsoring flagship events including:  Intel Extreme Masters, ESL One and ESL Pro League. Serpil Timuray, chief operations & strategy officer, Vodafone said: “We are delighted to launch this partnership and create one of the biggest international networks for esports at a time when audiences are growing rapidly and new technologies are poised to deliver better experiences.  I look forward to joining our customers across 25 countries in viewing ESL’s exciting esports tournaments, both at home and on their mobile devices.” Vodafone is also working with ESL to support initiatives that promote diversity and female participation in esports. For example, Vodafone is now a Premium Partner of the female esports challenge held during the IEM Sydney event in May 2018, and will collaborate with female esports personalities to highlight the opportunities for women to participate in, or pursue a career in, esports.

Gillette: Shaving brand Gillette was also quick to spot the opportunity presented by millions of hairy gamers. In 2017, it signed a sponsorship with ESL to support the League of Legends Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) World Championship in Katowice (a major event in the esports calendar). John Mang, global VP at Gillette, said: “It’s been exciting and eye-opening as we’ve immersed ourselves in the gaming community and discovered that both professional and amateur gamers have a lot in common with other premier athletes and sports fanatics. Gamers at all levels recognise the importance of precision – split seconds and minute movements make big differences. We get that obsession with precision better than anyone.” To support its activation, Gillette has also signed an endorsement deal with top eSports talent Enrique ‘xPeke’ Cedeño. 

Mercedes-Benz: One of the first car brands to brave the world of esports, M-B sponsored a tournament in Hamburg organised by leading event firm ESL. As part of its activation, Mercedes offered a free car to the best performing player in the tournament (as voted for by fans) and also brought in eight cars bearing the logos and colours of the participating teams. The campaign generally received a good response on social media.

Budweiser: It was a significant moment for esports when brewing giant AB InBev took the plunge into esports with Bud Light’s esports All-Stars programme in 2016. True, the activity got some negative feedback, but it’s a significant commercial moment when a business of this size shows interest in your sector. Undeterred by the criticism, Bud Light expanded its All-stars programme in 2017, adding a content series to its activation programme. Other beers to have moved into esports include Spain’s San Miguel and China’s oldest beer Harbin. Harbin has been successful, reaching young Chinese men through the launch of a competition called The Harbin Beer Esports Legion. Point of interest? Harbin belongs to AB InBev.

Airbus: Aeronautics company Airbus is not the biggest sponsor in esports by any stretch of the imagination. But the fact that it has entered the sector is interesting. In October 2017, it joined forces with an all-female League of Legends team called Out of the Blue. The deal suggests a few things. Firstly, that Airbus wants to use esports to give its brand a forward-thinking image. Secondly, that it sees esports as a potential recruitment platform (since it has no obvious consumer-facing activity). And thirdly, that it wants to further the course of women in esports. For other b2b brands looking to give their corporate image some zest, the Airbus deal should be food for thought. Lots of digital/tech brands are attracted to the internet-savvy esports community. And it stands to reason also that online retailers should explore the opportunities within the sector, especially those that target young men. A pioneer in this respect is, which entered esports last year by partnering FMESPORTS, a UK-based organisation that made its name via Counter Strike: Global Offensive. recently renewed that partnership and also announced that it would be working with Vexed Gaming, a professional multi-gaming organisation based out of the UK and Denmark. 

Steve James, gaming marketing manager for Ebuyer, said: “I’m thrilled to be able to take this next step in our esports adventure with a new team in the UK. We searched long and hard to find the right match for us and we feel Vexed offer a wide range of options.”

Further details on the gaming section of UKSA 2019 will be unveiled soon. In addition, all of the usual popular UKSA categories will be up for grabs at the 25th edition of the UK Sponsorship Awards. Further announcements will be made in the coming weeks about other category innovations and also activities designed to celebrate UKSA’s first quarter century.

Details on deadlines and how to enter will be available on the Awards website from September 1st, the official launch date. The venue for the event will be the London Marriott Hotel Grosvenor Square.


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