If there is one thing professional sports fans – and players – understand, it’s heartbreak.
That moment when your team is almost there, when they are this close, only to have the ball roll through the legs of the first baseman or an opposing wide receiver catch a Hail Mary touchdown as time runs out.
That’s what happened during this year’s League of Legends World Championships held in Beijing, China. The overwhelming favorite team, SK Telecom T1, was going for a three-peat and their fourth championship in five years. Instead, team Samsung Galaxy delivered a crushing 3-0 defeat. After the competitors shook hands and bowed respectfully, SK Telecom’s standout player, Sang-hyeok “Faker” Lee (considered by many to be the best League of Legends player in the world), collapsed to his chair in tears.
It’s a moment that any esports fan will recognize.
Even before the shocking finish, this year’s League of Legends World Championships had all the spectacle and drama you could want out of a finals event. The show kicked off with a high-budget concert that included a host of dancers decked out in masks and boogying around a huge replica of the Summoner’s Cup (the trophy awarded to the winning team).
When it came down to the final bout, it was a rematch of the 2016 finals where SK Telecom T1 beat Samsung Galaxy 3-2 (in that match SK Telecom T1 won the first two games, but Samsung Galaxy took the next two, meaning the championship was decided by a winner-takes-all game five).
The spectacle was enhanced when a ginormous Elder Dragon flew around the arena during the opening ceremony. This was accomplished thanks to augmented reality, meaning the tens of thousands of fans in the stadium couldn’t see it, but millions of viewers on Twitch received a treat.
Did I mention that the host arena was The Beijing National Stadium? Also known as the Bird’s Nest, The Beijing National Stadium held the opening, closing, and track and field events of the 2008 Olympic games. It’s a massive venue, and it was packed for the League of Legends World Championships. Outside, scalpers were selling tickets for hundreds of dollars (i.e., thousands of yen).
Not bad for something that started out as groups of friends gathering in each other’s homes to host LAN parties.
Yet some people are still surprised about the popularity of esports (including some that remain surprised about its very existence). Yet they shouldn’t be. Esports has been growing continually year after year.
In 2013, the worldwide value of the esports market was less than $100 million. In 2017, the value is considered to be $733 million. The market research and consultancy firm Ovum recently released a report that predicts the global esports market will reach a total value of $1.9 billion by 2022.
The report, titled ‘E-Sports Revenue Forecast: 2017–22’, estimates that the industry will have a compound annual growth rate of 20.7 percent. One marker for this growth is the annual revenue derived from ticket sales, which are predicted to increase at a 21.1 percent compound annual growth rate. Another indicator is a rise in streaming advertisement revenue due to forecasted audiences of more than 10 million viewers for the most popular events.
The final indicator is an expectation that sponsorships will grow to $578 million.
This expected increase in sponsorships seems to be corroborated by the recently released Nielsen Esports Playbook. Nielsen, best known for its rating system of the entertainment industry, measured the habits and demographics of esports fans in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States (the company also plans to release a similar report that focuses on China, Japan, and North Korea).
Nielsen found that the viewing audiences for esports are the strongest in the United States, where 66 percent of fans say they are likely to stream a live esports event and 42 percent are likely to watch live esports on television. Additionally, Nielsen found that esports fans are among the most active viewers of broadcast programming in general. This audience spends an average of 4.5 hours watching television and 4.3 hours viewing internet videos per week.
Also interesting, U.S. fans possess the strongest favorable perception toward sponsors and brand involvement in esports. The report found that 58 percent of esports fans in the United States have a favorable view of brand involvement, while only five percent perceive it negatively.
It doesn’t matter if the brands are inherently used throughout the course of the esports event or simply appear as sponsors, the brands receive favorable opinions from fans due to their involvement.
The clear message is that current and potential sponsors of esports have a dynamic, growing business with a dedicated fan base that pays attention to brands and appreciates their support. Esports sponsorships have a massive reach (that is only going to increase) and an audience that’s receptive to promotions.
Sponsors also have the opportunity to engage with these fans in new and exciting ways. Take, for example, The Riftwalk, an immersive experience that took fans through a physical simulation of many aspects of League of Legends.
Riot Games (the developers of League of Legends) envisioned The Riftwalk as a “Thank You” to the 67 million people who play League of Legends each month and the engaged community that has grown around the game. The exhibition made its first appearance in 2016 at PAX East in Boston. It was then toured to each location of the 2016 League of Legend’s World Championships: the kickoff in Toronto, Canada; the two-week group stage event in San Francisco, the quarterfinals in Chicago; the semifinals in New York; and the 2016 World Championship Tour Finals in Los Angeles. (The Trade Group was honored to put on all six of these events, from design to final execution, for the Riftwalk tour.)
Fans waited hours for a chance to tour The Riftwalk. Before entering the exhibition, visitors were given a bracelet containing a microchip. These RFID wristbands allowed attendees to reserve spots in advance, register their favorite character, and share their favorite parts of the game by filling out information online. During the event, the RFID wristbands would trigger monitors in each station of the exhibit and present content related to the attendee’s registered information – allowing fans to share their experiences on social media.
The Riftwalk is a snaking path through the Summoner’s Rift, the main battleground map where League of Legends matches take place. The journey included several photo opportunities:
- An animated GIF at a Blue Platform, which allowed visitors to choose from a variety of prop weapons.
- A 180-degree, bullet-time video featuring a 14.5-foot Baron Nashor sculpture.
- A slow-motion video at a Red Platform.
- A 13-foot Thresh puppet where forced perspective would make fans appear as if they were standing inside Thresh’s signature lantern.
The visitor’s RFID wristband connected to each of these photo ops. The final product was edited together and sent to attendee emails as a professional quality video.
The Riftwalk also included a museum of physical recreations of weapons that are used in the game plus a gallery of artwork.
Here’s the interesting thing: half of the art pieces were created by Riot Games while half were created by the community. In fact, according to Jess Frucht, the creator support program manager at Riot Games, about 50 percent of The Riftwalk content was provided by the community. That includes some of the show-stopping pieces like the huge Thresh puppet, which was created by 4 itchy Tasty! (a team of cosplayers) and professionals from Stoopid Buddy Stoodios (the group behind the animation for Robot Chicken).
“The event production company (The Trade Group) came in and set this whole thing up in about a day,” said Frucht. “It ships in crates on 18-wheelers and the whole thing. It’s an incredible effort, there are a lot of teams involved, there’s all the tech and AV and all the camera set ups, which are extensive, like the bullet-time camera setup. So, lots and lots of work goes into doing it. It takes four or five hours to pull Thresh out of all of his crates, and he ships in his custom rig, get him out, set him up, so there’s a lot of work that goes into it, for sure.”
Riot also invited cosplayers from the community to be a part of The Riftwalk. For the uninitiated, cosplay (a contraction of the words “costume” and “play”) is a hobby where people make themselves look like popular characters from movies, anime, and video games when attending conventions and events.
“The cosplayers are the greatest case in point of this experience of taking something we’ve created in a digital space […] and really bringing them into the real world,” said Frucht.
Cosplayers can spend days and even weeks perfecting a character’s look, and that is only considering the time investment – there’s a significant monetary investment, as well. Cosplaying takes real work and commitment. So, inviting top-notch cosplayers to be a part of The Riftwalk was a way to celebrate the achievements and dedication of these individuals. It also added another element for everyone who passed through the exhibit to enjoy.
What The Riftwalk achieved was a way to promote League of Legends while embracing and celebrating the fan culture that has grown around the game. This is a lesion that current and future sponsors of esports should heed. Esports fans tend to be passionate about the games and players they support. Finding ways to organically include them in promotions will increase your investment and engrain your sponsorship with their esport.
All indicators point to the esports industry’s continued expansion worldwide – and in the United States, it may be faster than anywhere else. U.S. fans are the most regular consumers of esports media and the most likely to appreciate and support the esports brand sponsors.
If you are interested in sponsoring or hosting an esports event, give The Trade Group a call at 800-343-2005. We have a team of seasoned professionals even for this young and growing esports industry.