Riot Games' James Lewin pushes brands to get into esports

Quiet as the click of a mouse, there’s been a vast generational shift in entertainment habits. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re a semi-socially gregarious 30 year-old (or a little older) who enjoys an occasional big night out and also your Netflix and chill moments. I’d encourage you to go talk with some fresh grads and see where their entertainment time diverges with your own.

Across APAC, people from their teens to their mid-20s, spend upwards of 50% of all entertainment time on games. Every month, globally, Riot’s League of Legends servers stream more hours of participative entertainment content than Netflix streams hours of movies and TV shows. In its most recent quarterly report, Netflix made clear that “consumer screen time” is its most valuable metric and they “compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO”. Without a doubt, gaming represents the now and next of entertainment; inclusive, live, social and participative. The challenge, especially for non-endemic brands looking to capitalise on gaming as a communication channel, is getting into it. A note of caution to the uninitiated, the player community vocally and unreservedly provides feedback if they feel their space is being invaded.

In the world of esports, as with traditional sports, a plethora of brands, products and services are welcomed to the pitch. The content isn’t gated behind a linear TV subscription, but rather distributed in environments fit-for purpose: YouTube, Twitch and Twitter. A tacit understanding is that the sponsor investments help to grow the sport, reward the athletes, and ultimately, elevate the experience. If gaming represents the future of participative entertainment, esports represents the future of sports content consumption; democratised distribution and opportunities to engage with the community in real time. And it’s bigger than you realise.

Today, non-endemic brands are excitingly making a move into esports. Unilever’s “Clear for Men” integration into the League of Legends’ Vietnam Championship Series is a strong example. The brand synergy is in the area of “resilience” and this translates well into both gameplay scenarios and the reality of the pro athletes. The subject of athletes brings us to Nike which just signed a four-year League of Legends sponsorship deal in China. Nike will supply each of the 16 professional teams with sneakers, casual clothing and professional jerseys. While Nike has dipped into esports before, this is the first time it has formally sponsored an esports team or competition - similar to NFL and NBA, validating esports as a sport.

Like traditional athletes, pro gamers follow strict eating, sleeping and training regimes. They spend countless hours honing their eyesight, learning to control their heart rates and perfecting their skills. Dan Cybak, CEO of the Gaming Stadium, Canada’s first esports arena, told AP News. “Their skillsets and where their minds are at is a level that a lot of us can’t play at.”

Other brands can learn an important lesson from Nike. With a sense of authenticity, the company connected its corporate values to the esports space. Its move into the competitive gaming realm serves as a good template for brands looking to do the same since Nike has told a brand story that makes sense to consumers. Your first step? Think sync: what are your brand attributes or product promise, and how can they bridge authentically with gaming. Come at the challenge from a Riot perspective: think player experience first. Get into gaming. Just do it. Via esports.

The writer is James Lewin, head of strategic partnerships, esports, Southeast Asia at Riot Games. The article first appeared in Marketing’s April print edition.