Competition is a prominent element in both the worlds of marketing and esports. For an esports player as well as for a brand, the ability to find and pursue opportunities is what determines success.
In marketing, the biggest opportunities often involve major events, and in esports marketing specifically, these are tournaments or leagues – major competitions where esports players test their mettle against some of the best players in the world.
This is where esports players are tested. Marketers, on the other hand, are tested in formulating business strategies based on careful research.
Esports leagues and competitions appeal to a wide variety of gamers, which means a vast demographic marketers can pull from. This three-part article will look at the largest and most relevant competitive opportunities in esports and how to choose which leagues to sponsor.
What to Consider Before Partnering
Choosing a competitive event to sponsor is a deliberate process. Among other factors, a company should consider the size, popularity, and age of the event; how the event is broadcasted or organized; the audience demographics; how accessible the event is to casual viewers; and how well the event aligns with the brand’s image and goals.
Respectively, these considerations can be simplified to infrastructure, formats, audience, accessibility, and brand fit.
Being such a new industry, esports often lacks infrastructure – from reliable, lasting audiences, to resources to support their growth. For a competitive event to succeed, not only does the game it’s built around need to attract a crowd, that game needs to keep growing its audience.
An event won’t succeed if the game it’s built around loses its audience (or has a small audience to begin with). The Heroes of the Storm and H1Z1 pro leagues both fell through in 2018, with Heroes unable to attract a substantial audience, and H1Z1unable to pay its players.
Beyond that, the Internet has created a globally connected esports community, but that often results in statistics that are displaced from regional or even national data. A game might be enormously popular in South Korea or China, but for a brand who can only target the US, that means very little.
That’s why it’s important to consider audience trends and regional data. It’s crucial for brands to consider games and competitions that have staying power, and audiences within their reach.
Brands should also keep in mind how competitions are promoting themselves to drive viewership.
Brands should also consider how viewers will watch a competitive event, or how the event is formatted. To make sound advertising decisions, it’s important to be aware of how an event is structured. In that way, a brand can consider every advertising opportunity.
The majority of esports competitions are hosted online, but move to physical venues during the playoffs and finals. A brand might want to consider audiences who will watch online, as well as audiences who will buy tickets to see the event live. Common sponsorship assets include in-broadcast overlays, branded content segments (during live competitions), in-venue advertising, social content with integrated league assets, game equipment, and apparel.
The goal is creating experiences for audiences that aren’t disruptive and increase brand awareness in positive and relatable ways.
Along similar lines, a brand should consider how an event is streamed to audiences. Events that stream exclusively through certain platforms are more likely to miss essential viewership.
When ESL terminated its exclusive broadcast deal with Facebook, and FACEITannounced it would stop broadcasting exclusively through Youtube, these organizers were motivated by audience growth. They saw the importance of reaching audiences across as many platforms as possible.
Additionally, when considering audience metrics, it’s important for brands to look at data that can be compared tangibly to digital and television. While there is definite potential in the esports industry, it’s still relatively new, and a lot of information might be exaggerated or inflated. Metrics such as “total viewers” and “max concurrent viewers” – metrics which have been widely considered in the past – might seem comprehensive enough, but they often fail to account for audience engagement and brand exposure.
Some competitive events have started partnering with Nielsen, to give brands more comprehensive data. This should allow brands to make more informed sponsorship decisions.
Many esports titles, such as League of Legends or Starcraft, don’t translate to real world sports or activities. They have their own internal mechanics that are often difficult for average viewers to understand. This means that for the uninitiated, these games may be too much trouble to follow.
This isn’t necessarily a concern right now, as esports audiences are mostly comprised of dedicated fans, who have no trouble following what’s happening on-screen. In the future though, brands and competitions may want to expand their reach.
Harder-to-understand esports could alienate future viewers. Brands interested in a bigger picture might consider less abstract games, where the objectives and tactics are easily understood by even unfamiliar viewers.
Barring that, brands should research whether competitions or esports leagues plan to consider more casual viewers. In 2018, Riot games and ELEAGUE broadcast a 1-hour-intro to League of Legends on TBS, discussing some of the mechanics and history of the game. ELEAGUE offered a similar program for Counter Strike: Global Offensive. These “101” segments may be a viable way for games and competitions to grow their audience.
In the long-term, brand image is often much more meaningful than brand exposure. To gain and keep an audience, a brand should always consider what it’s saying to consumers and how it’s saying it, and esports marketing is no exception.
Which game or competition a brand associates with can say a lot to consumers, whether positively or negatively. Awareness of the audience and history, both of game franchises and competitive events, is essential. Many brands will also want to consider gameplay that is brand safe – as removed from controversy as possible.
That’s not to neglect the importance of brand strategy. A competitive event might tie in well with a brand’s image, but if audiences have to go out of their way to support the brand, the sponsorship is much less effective. Non-endemic brands should consider how to seamlessly (but not disruptively) integrate themselves into the event, to make consumer response as efficient as possible.
A strong brand strategy connects with event audiences both online and offline.
With all these elements in mind, here are some brief overviews of some of the most established esports leagues and what makes them unique.
Established Leagues and Tournaments
1. League of Legends Championship Series (LCS)
Through its championship events, League of Legends has become a premiere name in esports, and the LCS (US specific tournament) is the highest tier competitive League of Legends has to offer.
The LCS is organized by Riot Games, the company responsible for League, and boasts ten franchise teams that compete in the US. The LCS annual season is split between spring and summer, culminating in the World Championship, which starts in October.
What makes it unique: While League of Legends is certainly not the most popular competitive esport in the US or North America, it has attained globally iconic status. Riot operates fourteen regional leagues globally, of which there are more than 100 teams.
Riot’s recent partnership with Nielsen, to deliver more comprehensive numbers to marketers, makes the LCS an even more enticing prospect.
2. Overwatch League
The Overwatch League is Blizzard’s ambitious attempt to bring esports to the mainstream. Modeling itself off of real-world sports leagues like the NFL and the NBA, OWL created franchise teams tied to major cities around the world.
Blizzard’s goal is to make global inroads, creating a global network of stadiums. They would have OWL travel the world between home and away locations, further mirroring
Overwatch is also quite popular in the US.
3. DOTA Pro Circuit
DOTA 2 has a lot in common with League of Legends. Both owe their existence to a Warcraft III mod, Defense of the Ancients; both have adopted a free-to-play model; and both have become iconic esports internationally.
The DOTA Pro Circuit includes five Major tournaments and five Minor tournaments, concluding in a final annual tournament called The International. The difference between a Major and a Minor tournament is that a Major is significantly more likely to qualify a player for the International, while also offering a larger prize pool.
What makes it unique: The International’s prize pool is crowdfunded, pulled partly from the sale of battle passes in DOTA 2. Battle passes give players access to virtual goods, which provide cosmetic rewards.
Because of this, the 2019 International will have the largest prize pool of any esports event ever, at $30 million.
4. CS:GO Major Circuit
A first-person shooter placing players in the roles of either counter-terrorists or terrorists, Counter Strike: Global Offensive is the latest installment in the popular Counter-Strike franchise. Although played worldwide, CS:GO is arguably most popular in the US. In the US, CS:GO outranks all other esports for sheer number of teams.
Also organized by Valve, the CS:GO championships are similarly formatted into a circuit of Major and Minor tournaments. However, CS:GO does not have its own version of the International. Tournaments are held internationally.
What makes it unique: CS:GO is one of the more “American” esports, so if brands want to orient themselves around an American identity, sponsoring the CS:GO major circuit is something to consider. However, brand safety is a concern. CS:GO is graphically violent, and violence is its core focus. Brands have to be wary of this going into any conversation.
5. Hearthstone Masters
Having experienced a slight decline since its massive Twitch popularity of several years ago – no longer the trend it used to be – Hearthstone is a digital card game set in the Warcraft universe. Hearthstone nevertheless maintains a strong audience and competitive scene.
This year, Blizzard announced the Hearthstone Masters, its attempt to make the Hearthstone esports scene more “sustainable, entertaining, and accessible” for players. The new system is divided into Masters Qualifiers, a Masters Tour, and the Grandmasters. The Masters Tour consists of select marquee live events and moves players around the world, starting in Las Vegas, moving to Seoul, and then concluding in Bucharest.
What makes it unique: Like OWL, the Hearthstone Masters is organized by Blizzard, a company making strong strides in the esports industry, aiming to legitimize it alongside other sports.
As far as brand safe esports, Hearthstone and other online card games are probably among the best, given that controversy is really not present in the gameplay itself.
With a successful brand strategy, sponsoring an established league, like those listed above, offers brands a large audience, more stability, and a strong community. However, a smaller brands might have difficulty reaching budget minimums with organizers for major competitive events to make a meaningful impact throughout the year.
A good brand strategy involves careful research, specifically regarding accurate and precise metrics with historical precedent and parallels. Considering the future of the esports industry, as well as what fits a brand’s image and product positioning, is vital to long-term success. Due to the novelty of the industry, a lot of figures may be exaggerated, and infrastructure is still developing.
The audiences for esports and competitions are vast, and within each community lies different types of untapped potential. Really connecting with audiences may be challenging, and it’s important to be genuine – to find honest connections between your brand and the audience.
This concludes our look into major esports competitions around the world. We’ve looked into how brands can form careful strategies around esports and make quality long-term decisions, both for themselves and for the health of the esports industry.
Part two will focus on competitions that, while popular, are still developing. Part three will look at newer and other notable esports competitions.