Labatt's launches its first eSports sponsorship
Posted on Sep 1, 2017 by Brad McCabe

If the idea of watching other people play video games holds zero appeal, this sponsorship is not meant for you. If you've never heard of players who go by the handles JWong and FChamp, it's not for you. But if these things do get your attention, then chances are, advertisers are having a hard time reaching you.

That's because fans of e-sports are exactly the type of young people who are flocking away from traditional media – and advertising. Competitive gaming draws massive audiences online and at major tournaments to watch the best players compete in a range of video games. In the past few years, marketers have been waking up to the world of e-sports, as they attempt to find new ways to speak to consumers steeped in a digital world.

This week, Labatt Breweries of Canada will launch its first sponsorships in this area, hosting a VIP lounge at DreamHack, a series of global digital festivals that include e-sports competitions coming to Montreal starting Friday. For $100, fans can book access to a Bud Light Living Room, where competitors Justin (JWong) Wong and Ryan (FChamp) Rodriguez will host skills clinics, as well as a tournament in which fans can compete for the chance to play against those two on the big screen on the festival's main stage. The brewer has partnered with JWong and FChamp in both Canada and the United States, and will try to reach more fans through their social media followings. It has also signed a partnership deal with Twitch, a popular gaming website and social network. It plans to develop "branded content" for Twitch to reach visitors to the site, which live-streams competitions and allows players to connect with each other.

Bud Light first launched its e-sports efforts in the United States last year. The new deals are a Canadian-specific initiative.

"I've seen some of the live events that happen even here in Toronto, filling stadiums. That was one of the tipping points for me: thousands of people coming to watch people play live. It's a true spectator sport," said Todd Allen, vice-president of marketing for Canada at Anheuser-Busch InBev, which owns Labatt. "We're looking to be long-term in e-sports."

E-sports have already begun attracting mainstream recognition in the marketing world. The global e-sports market is estimated to be worth $1.13-billion (U.S.), and is still growing, according to research firm SuperData. Nearly three-quarters of those earnings come from advertising and sponsorships.

Big-name sponsors have included Arby's, Audi, Chipotle, Coca-Cola, Gillette and PepsiCo. Talent agency giant WME-IMG, which represents celebrities including actors, musicians and athletes, moved into e-sports in 2015, and now runs an e-sports league, ELeague, in partnership with Turner Broadcasting.

Some games are now shown on television on TBS in the United States, and on Super Channel in Canada. ESPN2 has broadcast some tournaments. But the overwhelming following is on digital channels. This year, Rogers Communications Inc. signed an exclusive deal with ESL (formerly Electronic Sports League) to launch e-sports TV live-streaming through Sportsnet Now. And Facebook has been moving into streaming e-sports content.

Twitch, which Amazon bought in 2014 for $970-million, also draws significant audiences for live events and allows gamers to upload their own videos of their play. In 2015, Cineplex Inc. acquired WorldGaming, a platform for hosting e-sportscompetitions – both online and larger tournament events – for $15-million.

"While the very idea that people are willing to pay to watch other people play video games may seem strange to some, we have no doubt that eSports is big, and getting bigger," CIBC analyst Robert Bek wrote in a research note last year, adding that of the 214 million people that watch e-sports worldwide, 69 per cent are aged 18 to 34 and 85 per cent are male. "For sponsors/advertisers … the appeal of eSports is rather obvious; the genre appeals to a narrow, desirable, and increasingly hard-to-pin-down demographic."

Bud Light's first "All Stars" sponsorship was criticized by some for hand-picking nominees that didn't seem like the top of the field in e-sports, including some who weren't competing actively on the latest or most popular games.

"The way they engaged [in the United States], it's very corporate. It's very forced. They don't bring fans in to help mould the program, it's like they have a set vision," said Dan Ciccone, head of RevXP, a division of Chicago-based sports marketing agency Revolution that focuses on e-sports. However, he said the company is correct not to pull away as a result of the criticism.

"Traditional sports organizations, they're talking about the attrition especially of that younger male audience," Mr. Ciccone said. "E-sports affords marketers the opportunity to finally reach that audience that they've had a difficult time reaching for years now."

E-Sports still has room for growth in Canada, said Charles Watson, founder of Kitchener-based SetToDestroyX, the largest group of e-sports teams in the country. He believes the market needs more tournaments – and more sponsors.

"There's still a lot of work that needs to be done here from a marketing perspective," he said. There's a huge amount of potential that hasn't even been touched. It blows my mind sometimes, that you have such a huge market … and you're just starting to see traditional companies right now focusing on Canada."

Bud Light's strategy in Canada is borrowed from other live events that have been the brand's focus for years: it hosts various "living rooms" at music festivals, sporting events and elsewhere, such as alongside a UFC event in Edmonton next week.

"Experiences are the new currency," Mr. Allen said. "The trend has been away from 'premium' as defined by your accumulation of possessions. Younger people value experiences over things. … This is no different than our strategy of bringing fans closer to music or sports. We're super excited to bring that same philosophy to e-sports."

Article by Susan Krashinsky Robertson as posted on

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