Sports have long been one of the primary vehicles for brands to reach a large swath of key demographics, and now esports is entering the same realm.
As the category continues to grow massively, well-known brands like AT&T are expanding their partnerships in esports and exploring what is essentially a blank canvas for sponsors to play with, said Paul Brewer, senior vice president of brand partnerships with ESL North America. AT&T recently announced an expanded partnership with ESL North America to help fan engagement at the organization’s events, which include IEM Chicago, ESL One New York and the ESL Mobile Open.
“One of the exciting things is there are a lot of brands trying to figure it out and there’s lots of white space to build things together,” Brewer said of outside brands wanting to get into esports. “For us, while we’re the experts and have the esports history, they’ve learned a lot from traditional sports and entertainment and have a rich history in those arenas, so they make us better as a property.
“Their physical presence along helps level us up and validate us as an entity,” he said.
The partnership initially started in June 2018, kicking off AT&T’s entry into esports. But it has hit all the right points the brand looks for when searching for entities to include in its sponsorship budget, said Shiz Suzuki, AT&T assistant vice president of experiential marketing and sponsorship. The ESL partnership is still just a toe in the esports water for the 143-year-old company and the investment is only a fraction of traditional sports marketing, but Suzuki said there will be a continued focus in the category moving forward.
“It’s in that territory of connecting with people, not just talking to them,” she said. “I like a brand being an emotional meeting ground of customer and company. I want to know how I can engage with fans and so this kind of goes another step.”
One of the areas AT&T has helped most ESL is in its push in the mobile gaming platforms. Brewer said the telecommunications giant has helped create leagues and competitive opportunities for gamers who aren’t on the traditional esports platforms of PC and consoles. The partnership spawned the ESL Mobile Open, mobile esports league for games like PUBG Mobile, Clash of Clans and Asphalt 9. Last season 135,000 players participated, and Brewer expects the second season to grow as the league opened to all of North America, not just the U.S.
“It’s why you partner, not just with any mobile brand, but a visionary brand like AT&T,” Brewer said. “They come together with us and we don’t even talk about logos, and that’s important, but we don’t want to have that convo, we talk about how to build mobile esports together and how to put together an experience for fans.”
Suzuki said 2018 was a great learning experience in the esports category and now 2019 and beyond is more about expanding their presence and diversifying their reach to more than esports fans but gaming fans more broadly, which she said is a major driver of the ESL Mobile Open.
“It’s democratizing esports,” she said. “Professional esports have to have serious investment to be competitive. But most everyone has a mobile phone. It’s exciting because it allows that everyday gamer to have a moment as a pro player.”
The recent announcement also brings AT&T sponsorship to DreamHack, a digital festival which connects 300,000 esports enthusiasts across the globe. Suzuki says that helps “open up the aperture from a gaming fan perspective.”
The AT&T brand also has a natural connection to esports as a telecommunications company since connectivity is so important to esports. Suzuki said the company’s products such as AT&T Fiber and 5G will rekey components of the sponsorship moving forward as well.
AT&T has its long history in traditional sports, like long-time sponsorship deals with the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the NFL, like AT&T Stadium in Dallas, and a relatively new relationship with the NBA, which includes NBA 2K League.
While the traditional sports and entertainment focus is unlikely to change anytime soon, the entry to esports shows AT&T’s focus on putting their sponsorship dollars where “our people are, customers and employees,” Suzuki said. And just like how basketball fans are often different than football fans, Suzuki said they know to view esports as a wide swath of different demographics they can’t reach with just one partnership.
“We’re all in,” she said. “We had to start somewhere and you have to crawl before you run. From an investment standpoint, it’s relatively new, but we’re just getting started. It’s an exciting place to be as a business driver and love how we can tell our company story and share its technology.”