The Rise Of The Sponsored Professional Gamer
By Justin M. Jacobson, Esq.
If you browse your Twitter feed or turn on your local news, you are sure to see something related to esports. While the mainstream media and the non-endemic brands of the world are finally catching up, the trend of utilizing video game content creators or “streamers,” as part of a brand’s marketing campaign is not a new fad. In fact, online content streamers, in particular, those who utilize YouTube or Twitch’s streaming platform have been around and involved in these types of activations for several years. In 2017, according to Forbes, several of these online content streamers grossed several million dollars, including Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg ($12 million) and Logan Paul ($12.5 million).
As brands attempt to further integrate and market their product to the esports demographic and as esports press outlets continue to spotlight the individual competitive gamer, the focus and use of professional competitive gamers as part of a brand’s marketing plan has become prevalent. For instance, Intel recently entered into a sponsorship arrangement with Team Secret’s professional Counter-Strike: Global Offensive gamer, Julia “Juliano” Kiran. This action is different than how many brands have proceeded. They initially solely utilized traditional video game streamers, who may not be competitive gamers, for their branded activation. These companies also have traditionally focused solely on sponsoring and publicly aligning themselves with the esports organization or team rather than with the individual player. In recent months, this has begun to change due to the immense skill that these professional gamers exhibit. The development of a highly interactive and loyal gamer following as well as the international exposure that brands can obtain through a gamer’s participation in any of the streamed or televised tournaments has enabled this change. There has also been an increased focus from media, press and the teams themselves, to expose their signed talent to the public through interviews and other unique content meant to highlight the gamers’ distinct personalities. For instance, famous League of Legends’ player “Faker” was featured in traditional sports publication, The Players’ Tribune. Also, League of Legends’ League Championship Series franchise, 100 Thieves, who received a major investment from Cleveland Cavaliers’ owner, Dan Gilbert have launched their own unique content series, “The Heist,” in an effort to introduce the team so that the fans can familiarize themselves with the players. Another League of Legends’ League Championship Series franchise, the Golden Guardians, owned by Golden State Warriors’ majority owner Joe Lacob and his son, Kirk, provided “in arena” player introductions for the entire esport team during halftime of a Warriors basketball game.
Furthermore, the gamers themselves have attempted to become more animated and accessible through their own streamed content and social media posts. This includes several “Twitch” gamers earning several thousand dollars a month through advertisements and sponsorship based on the substantial amount of stream viewers. Teams have also begun creating individual player merchandise and jerseys, similar to other traditional sports; while, in the past, most esports organizations had just focused on manufacturing and selling team merchandise. For example, esports organization, OpTic Gaming is currently selling individual player merchandise for several of its competitive gamers, including “BigT,” “Midnite,” and, “SCUMP.” In addition, Blizzard’s Overwatch League has licensed official player specific jerseys for all of its franchises. OpTic Gaming’s franchise, the Houston Outlaws, has done the same.
As with other public figures in the traditional sports world, new exposure and income generating opportunities comes with a myriad of new issues affecting the content creator’s marketability. In fact, these gamers and content streamers have already come under scrutiny for their public actions, some of which have caused individuals to lose their sponsors, job, or all of the above. This is similar to the repercussions suffered by other professional athletes as a result of their public comments and actions at press conferences or on social media. Two recent instances include situations with NFL players Cam Newton and Rashard Mendenhall. In fact, NBA superstar Kevin Durant has even went as far as to respond to his social media “hecklers” in less than an ideal fashion. To date, Durant has not lost any of his existing sponsors, like others have, for their unprofessional social media interactions.
For example, two of YouTube’s largest grossing content creators, PewDiePie and Logan Paul, both recently came under attack for public actions on their streams. According to Forbes, as a result of PewDiePie’s racist comments during one of his live streams, he was initially banned from YouTube, was blacklisted by many advertisers and ended up losing about 20% of his total income. This is all after his previous anti-Semitic remarks in videos on his YouTube account cost him his arrangement with Disney. More recently, Paul was dropped by YouTube as an official partner as well as from its comedy series, “Foursome,” as a result of a highly insensitive stream and comments at Japan’s “suicide forest.” As a result, these two top streamers’ actions received public backlash and even caused YouTube to revamp its entire streaming monetization process. YouTube recently announced that it will now apply new “stringent review to all videos in ‘YouTube’s Google Preferred’ program.”
While these are two recent instances of large, publicly followed streamers losing sponsorship and brand affiliation as a result of their actions; professional video gamers have encountered similar sanctions as a result of their unprofessional public actions. For instance, former Super Smash Bros. 4 player Cristian “Hyuga” Medina was dropped by his sponsor following an alleged sexual assault of another gamer. Another example is Toronto Esports dropping professional Overwatch gamer Matt “Dello” Vaughn after a series of racial slurs made during one of the gamer’s live streams. Most recently, Overwatch league competitor Félix “xQc” Lengyel was suspended for four games and fined $2,000 for his derogatory comments directed at an openly gay competitor during Lengyel’s live stream after a heated match between the players’ teams.
While there is mention of professional esports organizations providing extensive physical and mental training for their gamers, including the Philadelphia 76ers-owned Dignitas and Team Liquid’s new sponsored player training facility; there is little to no mention about any public relations or other media training provided to the gamers. With the recent public incidents, especially xQc’s comments after an Overwatch League match and the history of gamer scandals, these types of player “preparation” services have become even more important. This fact is further brought to the forefront with the continued public alignment of esports league organizers with professional sports associations, such as the NBA’s new 2K League and Major League Soccer’s eMLS league. In particular, major public entities, such as the NBA, are subject to high scrutiny on behalf of its employees (players). This is due to many sponsorship and brand affiliations reliance on upholding mainstream, “politically correct” sentiments and the expansion of professional gaming further aligns the gamer’s actions with the organizations they represent.
Overall, the shift of brands solely aligning themselves with content streamers and professional esports organizations to entering into unique, individual competitive gamer sponsorships has brought the need for proper media training, including instruction on how to deal with one’s competitors, the press and the fans, to the forefront. It is clear that there has been a lack of focus on this aspect of a gamer’s development; and, in light of the recent incident in the Overwatch League, proper gamer training will be extremely valuable to avoid these situations. While there have not been any examples of an esports organization specifically losing a sponsor as a result of a player’s actions, this could potentially be anticipated as a brand’s response to such a public incident.
This article was originally posted on SportTechie.