On July 28, 2019, Kyle Giersdorf was not unlike most 16-year-olds — albeit, one very good at Fortnite.
But that night, he got put on the global esports radar when he won $3 million as the first-ever Fortnite World Cup Champion. That quickly made Giersdorf, better known by his gaming handle “Bugha,” one of the most well-known esports players on the planet.
In the year since, Bugha’s profile has elevated even further, in part due to being the first client of VaynerGaming, a new division of the sports agency founded by Gary and AJ Vaynerchuk.
After his win, Bugha was booked to appear on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” But even with that excitement, he was ready to get back to Pennsylvania and keep training in his gaming room, according to VaynerSports Executive Vice President Mike Neligan, who now serves as his marketing agent.
On the marketing front, that has led to a “incredibly patient approach in the face of heavy criticism from the industry and competitors that felt if financial opportunities weren’t taken advantage of in the immediate, they would quickly go away as his awareness would be a flash in the pan,” Neligan said, making sure that Bugha’s success went beyond that one event.
First that meant renegotiating his deal with his esports organization Sentinels, letting Bugha work with a variety of brand partners.
Then there was the creation of a long-term deal with Twitch. Valued in the seven-figures, it not only paid Bugha for streaming hours but also put him in a top-tier of creators on the platform, ensuring he is featured at Twitch events and throughout its marketing initiatives.
There was also an emphasis put on the social content created around him, ensuring that he could focus on competitive esports while the VaynerGaming team kept him atop fans’ minds. They used many of the same things that have helped “GaryVee” have one of the most engaged followerships on the internet.
“We have kept Kyle at top-of-mind awareness within (and outside) the gaming industry where otherwise, it would have been ‘easy’ for him to fall off considering what he was doing with his content strategy before, which wasn’t very much outside of posting clips to IG and Twitter every few days,” Neligan said. “We’ve taken long-form pieces of content and broken them down and mixed them together to distribute in the places where they will garner the most attention.”
In October 2019, Bugha had 1.2 million followers on Instagram, 1.6 million subscribers on YouTube, 600,000 followers on Twitter, and he did not have a TikTok account.
As of August 14, he has 4.2 million followers on Instagram, 3.18 million subscribers on YouTube, 1.2 million followers on Twitter, and 3.3 million followers on TikTok.
The VaynerGaming team, which on the digital front is led by Head of Content and Social Strategy Brandon Hatcher, has also looked to keep Bugha in the limelight by ensuring that he is not only engaging with his growing community, but also commenting when an account like Sportscenter or the main Fortnite account posts something so that he also is viewed as someone with an opinion on top of being a great player.
Keeping the spotlight on Bugha has also helped on the partnership front, where VaynerGaming has helped secure more than $6 million in new deals for him since they began working together.
That was most apparent at the Super Bowl, where Bugha featured in a Sabra Hummus commercial alongside celebrities like Ric Flair and Cardi B.
Like most esports athletes, he’s done several deals with companies deep within the space, ranging from a partnership with training program Aim Lab to one with Electronic Arts around its new game Rocket Arena.
He’s also vented out into larger, consumer-focused brands. He has done deals with P&G and Samsung, and became the first gamer with an official licensed Fathead.
He also did a deal with retailer Five Below, which will result in licensed gaming products being on shelves this holiday season.
Neligan said they have looked for partnerships where he could have an authentic connection, and not ones where he’d be one of dozens of other gaming ambassadors for a more endemic company.
Bugha has remained focused on gaming since his defining win. While Fortnite developer Epic Games will not hold the World Cup this year due to COVID-19, he has remained near the top of competitive Fortnite, and recently hosted his own virtual tournament.
Whether or not he shifts to another game in the future is unknown, but Neligan is aiming to make sure that Bugha’s brand follows him regardless.
“The focus from day one has been on building a rock solid foundation that would allow Kyle to have a sustainable and long-term career in the gaming industry but also allow him to be the teenager, son, and older brother that he was before any success came his way,” he said.