The esports game
Esports audiences are growing prodigiously, increasing the lure of sponsorship opportunities to a range of brands beyond the tech sector
As audiences boom, so the lure of sponsorships will grow for brands beyond the tech sector
‘The reach and audience far outstrips other sporting and entertainment properties’ Mark Brittain, Gfinity
It is a sunny January afternoon in Burbank, California, and fans in sports tops are queuing at the Blizzard Arena to watch San Francisco Shock take on Los Angeles Valiant in the opening game of the season. These are not fans of NFL or NBA teams, however. Instead they are supporters of new city-based Overwatch teams. Welcome to the world of professional video-gaming, popularly known as esports. Overwatch is an Activision Blizzard computer game that features two teams of six players battling against each other in a virtual world. The Overwatch League (OWL) launched in January with 12 city franchises, each of which reportedly cost $20m (£14m) to acquire. A lot is riding on the inaugural season of OWL. Hype about esports has reached fever pitch, sparking a scramble by major brands to grab a piece of the action. This tournament, then, represents Activision Blizzard’s attempt to professionalise the world of esports and make it a suitable brand vehicle for largescale advertisers. The sector is awash with money as speculators bet big on 2018 being the year it comes of age. Investment has come in from traditional sports teams, pop stars, privateequity firms, marketing agencies, games publishers, consultancies and market research companies. However, “non-endemic” (in other words, non-techy) advertisers have been largely notable by their absence. Looking at the raw figures, it seems odd that more brands have not given esports a try. The global audience is projected to grow from 385 million people in 2017 to 589 million by 2020, according to widely cited figures from Newzoo. Prize pots for tournaments stretch into the tens of millions and broadcast rights are being sold for eye-watering sums. Amazon-owned streaming service Twitch was unveiled at the eleventh hour as the tournament’s broadcast partner in a two-year deal, and is understood to have paid $90m (£63m) for the privilege. Other brands on the scene include Intel and HP, both of which signed multi-year headline sponsorships with OWL. A week after the tournament launched, Toyota was unveiled as the first major non-tech sponsor, and subsequent partnerships have been announced with T-mobile and Sour Patch Kids. The mirroring of traditional sports goes way beyond the city franchises. OWL matches come complete with pundits who pore over the players’ performances. “Blizzard is trying to do something that has not been done before on that scale,” Chris Hana, co-founder of esports business platform The Esports Observer, says. “They are trying to take esports to the next level.” Initial results are positive. The opening day smashed expectations with a concurrent audience averaging 408,000. Across the week, the average concurrent audience stood at 280,000. This franchise model is also being introduced to the popular League of Legends game. The North American League of Legends Championship Series launched the new season with its own franchise model; each team franchise cost about $10m (£7m). Josh Kocurek, senior manager of global marketing for PC gaming at HP, sees it is a momentous time. “Two of the largest leagues going to a franchise model cements 2018 as a really big year for esports,” he says.