In a darkened arena, a crowd of a nearly 10,000 gaze up at giant screens eagerly awaiting for the games to begin, a list of sponsors is called out, their logos flashing up on the display, at one particular name the frenzied fans break into chanting; “DHL! DHL! DHL!”.  

Is it a marketing executive’s wet dream? Or a scene from an Orwellian sci-fi movie depicting a future society brainwashed into worshipping a multinational courier company? 

Nope, this was last year, on a fairly ordinary May bank holiday weekend in Birmingham, where inside a massive arena something extraordinary happened – fans gathered to watch pro players compete in the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game Dota 2 fervently expressed their appreciation of said courier company’s backing of the tournament. This year, when the event host ESL (Electronic Sports League – the world’s biggest esports company) announced ESL One Birmingham 2019 on Twitter, gleeful fans referenced the chanting. 

The chants had become almost an in-joke – and in the world of esports marketing in-jokes are key. Once again, this June, at a packed Arena Birmingham, the crowd went crazy for that funky German-owned courier. 

2018 was the first year the UK had welcomed the Dota 2 Major, which is a qualifier for The International Dota 2 Championship, one of the two biggest events on the esports calendar (the other being the Intel Extreme Masters). Last year, The International, now in its eighth year broke its own records, and that of esports tournaments in general, with a total prize pool of $25.5 million. 

In the first five minutes of going on sale, 1,000 tickets were sold, and within 24 hours, nearly all of the original allocation was gone. So it’s clear the Dota devotees were excited anyway, but still….

When I see a crowd of 10,000 at the national indoor arena in Birmingham cheering every time they see a logo on screen, it’s a reminder of what happens when a brand gets it right.

Sponsorship is often the least sexy forms of marketing and usually involves little more than logo overkill and possibly a launch video. To understand how a brand had so captured the audience’s hearts in this case, we need a specialist’s insight…

“When I see a crowd of 10,000 at the national indoor arena in Birmingham cheering every time they see a logo on screen, just because DHL provided a fun weekend of clips of a popular presenter and gave out cakes on a stick, it’s a reminder of what happens when a brand gets it right – and for the brands who do get it right, the rewards are significant. Not just sales, but real brand awareness, respect and even adoration,” says Paul ‘ReDeYe’ Chaloner, co-founder of esports consultancy and talent agency Code Red Esports. Chaloner, 47, was one of the world’s first professional esports broadcasters and began ‘shoutcasting’ (commentating over the onscreen action) in 2002.

The popular presenter Chaloner mentions is Jacob ‘SirActionSlacks’ Kanner, a Dota 2 streamer turned caster who appeared in DHL campaign videos playing the role of a delivery man preparing welcome gifts for tournament players. In one video, a version of DHL’s automated warehouse robot EffiBOT appears and seamlessly moves from the IRL dimension of the warehouse to the Dota 2 world as an in-game courier battling enemies and obstacles as he completes his mission. 

The DHL EffiBOT featuring in Dota 2

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Fans were titillated by the merging of the two dimensions but also appreciative of DHL’s support of the tournament. A key component of how esports fans interact with brands is that they will reward ones that offer genuine long-term investment that helps grow their favourite game/team/event, but will deride those brands that appear to be in it for short-term gains and exploitation. 

As official logistics partner for the ESL One series, DHL transports staging, screens, players’ specialised seating etc around the world. Also, crucially, the activations referenced Dota 2 memes and in-jokes, thus the brand reveals its understanding of the game. Though DHL has used ad agencies for other campaigns, this content was created by ESL itself, indicating how the courier company realised the value of having esports experts on board. 

Marketing professionals are slowly understanding that to reach the 16-25 year olds they have to talk to them on their platforms.

“Brands have to create something for the fans,” explains Chaloner, “they have to bring a tangible benefit to their game, or the players or the teams involved, and need to work with the experts in order to speak the same language and engage properly, not just slap a logo on a shirt and expect everyone to love them. Esports fans are different to almost any type of fans in the world, and fans in each game community are different from each other, too. If brands think they can just use the same old techniques they’ve used in the past, they won't get as much benefit of being involved in esports as those who are authentic and listen to fans.” 

ABOVE: Code Red Esports' Paul Chaloner

Over time, each game develops its own culture; its in-jokes and specific memes. Getting in on a community’s meme culture is thus a high-risk approach but pays dividends by creating a strong connection. So hitting the right tone right is key, as well is hitting the right platform. “Marketing professionals are slowly understanding that to reach the 16-25 year olds (which esports is dominated by) they have to talk to them on their platforms, that means advertising and sponsoring via platforms like [esports channel] Twitch or YouTube and engaging with them on leading esports mediums, such as Twitter and Discord, rather than running traditional advertising on linear TV networks,” explains Chaloner. 

Thus, although the staging of live esports tournaments is a growing industry, as yet there hasn’t been a whole lot of creative promotion of the events appearing via traditional advertising platforms. In 2017 Passion Animation studio’s directing collective ROYGBIV created a stunning film, Legends Never Die, for the video game franchise League of Legends 2017 World Championships. Blending 2D and 3D animation, the film portrayed three warriors from the game embarking on heroic journeys to reach the championships. Like much of the creative for games and tournaments, the games’ characters and environment forms the core of the content. 

League of Legends – Legends Never Die

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Beyond tournament sponsorship and promotion, the order of the day in esports advertising is more commonly social campaigns, often leveraging influencer power, such as Code Red Esports’ tie up with Grenade protein bars

esports is a subsection of the biggest entertainment medium on Earth - gaming.

The style is informal and intimate and reveals how involved esports fans are with the industry. And, in this dizzyingly fast-growing sector, it certainly makes business sense to court such involvement. The latest report from games and esports analytics company Newzoo reveals the global esports market will reach $1.1billion this year – a year-on-year growth of 26.7 per cent – with 82 per cent of the total market ($897.2 million) coming from endemic and non-endemic brand investments (media rights, advertising and sponsorship). 

Yet this quiet revolution seems to be taking place almost by stealth. I ask Chaloner why, despite its obvious popularity and expansion, esports still seems so unknown to a wider public. 

“I don't agree with the premise that esports is ‘so unknown’,” he replies, “esports is a subsection of the biggest entertainment medium on Earth, i.e. gaming. It's the competitive arm of gaming and that means anyone who competes in a videogame, anywhere on the planet is exposed to esports, even if they don't know it. There are over half a billion people watching esports on various formats today and over 2 billion people playing a videogame of some kind. That isn’t unknown.”

So maybe, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, there are ‘known knowns’ and ‘known unknowns’. Maybe, some of us think we know about esports when we don’t, or vice versa, while those in-the-know – fans, and smart brands operating in the space – make it their business to know a lot. 

As part of Chaloner’s ongoing mission to help the great unknowing get in-the-know he published a handy infographic on Twitter last year, here is an updated version.

Like many insiders, he’s at pains to discourage comparisons between esports and traditional sport; “you're comparing apples with oranges. If people have to compare esports with traditional sports, it’s better to compare the games within, such as League of Legends with football, or Dota 2 with basketball. That’s a much more accurate comparison. Esports is a collective of different disciplines and genres, not a solitary sport in its own right.”

Another area of confusion that seems to plague the industry is its image. In an interview with Marketing Week last year, Solenne Lagrange, Marketing Director of leading esports TV channel, Ginx, agreed that esports needed to shake off its image of loners playing for hours in their basements, saying that it was a myth. “It’s far from the truth. It’s a very social activity, people talk a lot together, they engage and share opinions and they do a lot of research when it comes to buying things.” 

Let's be clear: esports is competitive gaming; the pursuit of perfection and achievement.

Chaloner disagrees that esports itself has an image issue: “anyone who says esports has an image of ‘loners playing in their basements’ is either inexperienced in esports, uneducated, naive or all three. This may have been a stereotype of gamers 20 years ago, but it has never applied to esports specifically. Again, it comes down to a misunderstanding about what esports is. Let's be clear: esports is competitive gaming; the pursuit of perfection and achievement, it involves regular practice and focus on improvement.” He indicates that there is a level of discrimination against esports players compared to traditional athletes: “we don't criticise footballers for spending eight hours a day kicking a ball around. These people are encouraged and often praised for their dedication, yet because the medium isn't a football pitch, but a computer, the same dedication to being the best at their chosen discipline is ridiculed and mistaken for addiction. It’s easy to just write it off as sedentary but successful esports players pay close attention to their diet, their fitness, their minds and their bodies.”

As the sector grows, it will bring forward into the wider culture esports ambassadors who will shift misconceptions. Esports athletes are already starting to appear in more mainstream marketing. Last year, Chinese League of Legends star player Jian ‘Uzi’ Zihao appeared in Nike’s Dribble & campaign alongside basketball legend LeBron James; Zihao, 21, recently won a gold medal in the title at the Asian Games in Jakarta, where competitive gaming was included for the first time. 

ABOVE: Chinese League of Legends star player Jian ‘Uzi’ Zihao

Last year, Tyler ‘Ninja’ Blevins, became the first pro gamer to be featured on the cover of ESPN the Magazine. He may play for 12 hours a day in a basement studio, but this charismatic sportsman somewhat transcends the basement saddo image. He has sponsorship deals with Samsung, Uber Eats and Red Bull; his Twitch channel was the first to reach 10 million followers and he has 20 million YouTube subscribers, all of whom log on to watch him play Fortnite (a free game with 200 million plus players globally). 

Aged just 27, he’s reportedly pulling in more than $500,000 per month. 

ABOVE: Tyler ‘Ninja’ Blevins, the first pro gamer to be featured on the cover of ESPN Magazine

Other rising stars include Russian Dota 2 player, Roman 'RAMZES666' Kushnarev, the winner of ESL One Birmingham 2018, who has become a brand ambassador for shampoo brand Head & Shoulders, meaning he’s…. ahem… rubbing shoulders with other Head & Shoulders’ ambassadors such as top England players Steph Houghton and Jordan Nobbs who appeared in the #JustWatchMe campaign for the FA. 

ABOVE: Russian Dota 2 player, Roman 'RAMZES666' Kushnarev.

So, it’s clear that esports is enjoying a moment, but some in the industry are worrying about the speed at which money is pouring in – could that moment become a bubble? If much of esports revenue is still from sponsorship, advertising deals and other commercial sources, does this make it vulnerable to the whims and demands of third parties? Chaloner isn’t worried: “Sure we have a lot of money starting to come in, but it's not at a scale where if we suddenly lose that money it will kill the industry. 

"Right now, we are still searching for the optimum way to do business in esports. Let's keep in mind that at best, this industry is 15 years old and really more like less than a decade old. Compare its progress with any other sport from its birth year and we are already far ahead of anything that has ever come before it, but also we need to be realistic. If you take the entirety of esports income right now and compare it financially with say the NFL, it still falls far, far behind. We've got a lot more we can do and the ceiling for growth is higher than any other sport. Bubble or not, the future is incredibly positive for esports.”