Op-Ed: Emerging Trends in Esports Sponsorship

19 Feb 2021

By: Sport Industry Group

After a year in which esports was thrust front and centre, Debbie Scott-Bowden, Account Director and Esports Lead at CSM Sport & Entertainment looks at the emerging trends in the sponsorship space across the sector.

As we approach a year since Boris Johnson announced the first of the UK’s nationwide lockdowns, the conversation around the growth of the esports industry rolls on. Many have seen the restrictions placed on both the public  and the sports industry  as a trigger for the growth in esports . The truth is though, that esports has been experiencing significant growth for a number of years. The difference in the past twelve months? More people have begun to take note.

Be it BBC Sport streaming the League of Legends Championship online or via their iPlayer platform, high-profile Premier League footballers taking part in charity tournaments to help raise money for NHS Together, or England cricketers passing time in their bio-secure bubbles by playing Call of Duty, esports has secured mainstream news headlines. 

The ecosystem has, however, been well prepared for this moment, with teams, tournament organisers, streaming platforms and sponsors all now benefiting as a result. According to Newzoo’s 2019 gaming report, 78% of gamers see a positive brand attitude towards those who are associated with esports, and this depth of feeling only strengthens over time.

It is of little surprise, then, that esports has experienced a steady growth in the number of non-endemic sponsors breaking into the industry – a trend that has been led predominantly by the FMCG category. An opportunity to reach a dynamic demographic, often out of reach from traditional advertising channels, has been recognised by brands. That, coupled with the level of engagement this audience provides through esports, has seen those brands who partnered with esports a number of years prior to the pandemic, now being rewarded.

Food and beverage brands, in particular, sensed the value opportunity on offer within the industry, in a relationship that stretches back almost ten years. Coca Cola Zero were first, sponsoring the League of Legends Challenger Series in 2013, with Monster Energy following two years later. Red Bull arrived in 2017, before Mountain Dew took up the mantle in 2019, launching a gaming-specific product, ‘Game Fuel’, as part of the partnership. All four brands now have dedicated gaming social media handles to authentically engage with the gaming community.

More recently, esports data platform, GEEIQ, reported seeing an average increase of 49% year-on-year in non-alcoholic beverage partnerships since 2012, with over 50 esports team partnerships from the sector announced last year alone.

The relationship between gaming and food is also intriguing marketing professionals. Newzoo’s report found that 80% of gamers consumed food or drink whilst gaming- a figure that  increased to 90% for those who were viewing esports or gaming. The Grocer also conducted research last year, identifying that 35% of gamers buy food and drinks specifically to suit their playing habits. This means that brands are having to tailor their product offerings to the demands of the market, with greater emphasis now placed on the functional elements of a particular product. Focus and energy are two important facets of successful performance within elite level sport and esports, and as a result, brands are focusing on pushing the products, or lifestyles, that can help service those requirements.

Lucozade, for instance, is a brand that sits in the unique position of partnering with elite professional teams across both traditional sport and esports. Alongside its long-term sponsorship of The FA, including an award winning campaign with The Lionesses, the brand has recently entered into a partnership with the world’s largest non-league football team Hashtag United, which incorporates its men’s teams, women’s teams, and its wildly popular esports team.

Whilst an in-game, front-of-shirt sponsorship of Hashtag United’s kit in FIFA 21 has helped drive greater brand awareness amongst its key audience, the partnership was, in fact, launched with a fitness workout led by the team’s leading FIFA players Alex Shaw and Tom Leese. With that, Lucozade Sport found a neat way of demonstrating the benefits that physical exercise and movement can have for professional gaming athletes, which simultaneously tied into its wider brand message around the importance of movement in supporting a healthy lifestyle. 

And if there was once a perception that esports partnerships were solely the preserve of snack and energy drink suppliers, recent trends point to a growing diversity in the make-up of its sponsors.

Competition within the sector is rising, as evidenced by the recent announcements from discounter supermarkets Lidl and Aldi. Within 48 hours of each other, both had entered into the world of esports via partnerships with SK Gaming and Team Vitality respectively. SK Gaming reported that fresh food would be a ‘cornerstone’ of the partnership, enhancing its teams’ performance-nutrition plans. 

If more proof was needed of the commercial strength that the F&B sector now enjoys within esports, it was perfectly illustrated in 2019 when the category was the first to sell out across the ‘big five’ esports leagues. League of Legends Pro League (LPL), League of Legends European Championships (LEC), League of Legends Championship Series (LCS), Overwatch League (OWL) & King Pro League (KPL) all held Official Partners from within the food and beverage category – a feat only achieved subsequently by the retail and apparel sector. 

The Grocer’s report also found that 43% of gamers purchased products that had a promotional tie in with gaming – a trend that F&B brands have been quick to exploit. Doritos’ ‘Find all 4, Win a PS5’ on pack promotion, which ran around the high-profile launch of Sony’s PlayStation 5 in October 2020, grabbed national headlines in Britain.

With the UK’s gaming enthusiasts struggling to get hold of the latest console The Sun – one of the nation’s top-selling newspapers – even ran a story on how purchasing a pack of Doritos for £1 and entering redemption codes could be your best chance of getting your hands on one.

So, will this upward trajectory last? As many predicted, the return of live sport provided the first indicator as to how resilient esports’ long-term viewing numbers would be, in a post-pandemic world. In July 2020, Major League Baseball (MLB) was one of many traditional sports to return in the US, with ESPN reporting record highs of 4M viewers tuning in to Opening Day - itself a 232% increase on the previous year. At the same time, 3.9M people were still tuning in to watch the League of Legends (LoL) World Championship on YouTube and Twitch. 

Of the two fast-food sponsors involved, Taco Bell (MLB) and KFC (LoL), it’s too early to say who enjoyed a more impactful engagement through their respective investments. What it did show unequivocally, though, was that esports is here to stay.  
Moreover, the sponsorship market is showing no signs of slowing down, with an estimated worth of $655M last year alone, and the food and beverage sector continues to be at the forefront of non-endemic brands’ charge into esports.