The largest competitions in esports provide opportunities for a large number of franchises and their players, but among the masses of high profile esports competitions, an argument could be made for their lack of variety. Many of the upper echelon competitions involve either MOBAs like League of Legends of DOTA 2, battle royales like Fortnite or PUBG, and FPS games like Overwatch and CS:GO.

But trends change, especially in the tech, esports, and entertainment industries. As time passes, new generations of consumers enter the sphere. Even among individuals with only a couple years of age difference, tastes and trends can vary wildly.

This is why brands should remain aware of new developments in the esports industry. New games are made at an incredible pace, and from some of them, competitions are born. Some of these have the potential to capture entirely new markets and different types of players.

In parts one and two of this article series, we looked at some of the biggest esports competitions in the world, which hopefully provided some solid groundwork for marketers considering sponsorship opportunities. In the case of business opportunities though, the biggest opportunities might not always be the most obvious. This article will instead focus on some smaller competitions, which have both room to grow and potential.

What to Consider Before Partnering

Part one of this article series looked at the five key factors in making sponsorship decisions, with part two (and now three) summarizing them. These factors were simplified to infrastructure, formats, audience, accessibility, and brand fit.

Just to summarize these one final time, brands would be well-advised to remember these key factors before making sponsorship or other major business decisions:

  1. Infrastructure: Does the league have the proper resources to succeed and grow? What’s more, is there well-substantiated and grounded data to demonstrate the potential of the league?
  2. Formats: How do a league’s events enable brands to advertise? What advertising formats and structures are possible for brands, and how can brands fit into events as seamlessly as possible? The goal is to not interrupt or detract from viewer experiences.
  3. Audience: Who’s watching or playing in competitive leagues? How do the events’ audiences benefit from knowledge of your brand? Consider streaming platforms and who uses them, as well as live audiences.
  4. Accessibility: Who watches the league competitions? Can the game being played appeal to casual audiences as well as dedicated players?
  5. Brand Fit: Does the league provide an opportunity to properly advertise a brand or product? Can a brand offer a product that will resonate with audiences? Does a brand benefit from association with the league?

These considerations are all crucial in making sponsorship decisions. Having reviewed these key factors, here are some fairly new and promising esports competitive leagues.

1. NBA 2K League

Although NBA 2K is far from a new franchise, having started in 1999, the NBA 2K League is a fairly new development.

The league is a collaborative endeavor between the National Basketball Association and Take-Two Interactive, the current publishers and developers of the franchise. Announced in 2017 and beginning play in 2018, this marked the first time that a North American professional sports league had ever operated an esports league.

2019’s competitive season featured twenty-one NBA 2K teams, each of which were owned and operated by an NBA franchise team. Players over 18 could submit an application, and based on their record in a certain game mode, the NBA considered them as draft picks. Teams competed in weekly season games followed by playoffs and finals. The competitions were livestreamed through Twitch and took place at the NBA 2K League Studio Powered by Intel in Long Island City, New York.

Somewhat uniquely, each qualifying player signed a six-month contract and was granted a $35,000 salary, with medical, housing, travel, and food benefits paid for by the NBA.

The NBA 2K League also recently announced a distribution deal with Tencent, a Chinese Internet services provider. In the future, playoffs and finals will be broadcast to China through Tencent, a company tied to Riot Games (publisher of League of Legends). Tencent was also the exclusive broadcast partner of the North American basketball league in China.

2. Magic Pro League

Magic Arena is not the only online version of the world’s first trading card game, Magic: The Gathering, but it is by far the most popular. While its sister game, Magic Online, went live in 2002 and still struggles to resonate with audiences, Magic Arena has seen tremendous success after just under two years.

This is not to say that the Magic Pro League, which began this year, has run smoothly. While Wizards of the Coast has taken similar measures to the NBA 2K League, offering 32 selected players a $75,000 salary on top of a hefty prize pool, its communication with those players and with its community has fallen under scrutiny.

The selection criteria for its 32 players was kept somewhat vague, and after two of those players, Yuuya Watanabe and Gerry Thompson, either left or were disqualified, Wizards replaced them based not on ranking, but on a desire for better representation. On top of this, Gerry Thompson had left largely due to contractual and payment concerns, citing a lack of transparency.

This year’s Magic Pro League structure, with 32 players competing against each other across “splits” on Twitch, is changing in 2020. Wizards has announced a Rivals League, a sort of pre-Pro “grassroots” league, as well as changes to its World Championship, which will now include players from all platforms.

Brands should be aware that while the Magic Pro League shows great potential, it is currently facing some controversy, and its success will depend largely on how well Wizards of the Coast communicates and treats its players in the future.

3. Call of Duty League

Following the running theme of “old but new,” the Call of Duty League (no official name given yet) is also not Activision’s first attempt at running a competitive esports series for its Call of Duty franchise. Its former league, the Call of Duty World League, began in 1996 and was run internationally across North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

The new league is Activision’s attempt to scale back, restructure, and elevate Call of Duty’s league system. Activision-Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick has stated that he hopes to emulate the Overwatch League with this reboot. Like the Overwatch League before it, this new structure will create twelve Call of Duty league teams representing different cities globally, across Europe and the United States.

However, the transition does not come without costs. With its new attempt to scale up and scale back, many iconic teams from the CWL will not make the cut. In particular, teams like 100 Thieves and Evil Genius, as well as brands like FaZe Clan and Optic Gaming, will not be able to create franchise teams with the new league. Franchising a team reportedly costs around $25 million, putting competitive play out of most normal players’ reach.

While Call of Duty might not be the perfect embodiment of brand safety, brands may want to observe the new league in 2020, just to see any potential opportunities going into the future.

4. ESL Pro Tour

In part one of this series, we brought up the prestigious CS:GO Major Championship and its cultural relevance to the United States. The Major Championship, sponsored by Valve, remains the most prestigious and highest ranking tournament in competitive CS:GO. However, before players can qualify for Valve’s Majors, they have to qualify, and this is where the issue became a bit chaotic in the past.

Before earning a spot in Valve’s Major championship, players have to be invited to and win a Minor championship, and doing that requires building a reputation within the CS:GO community. Earning that reputation requires participating in other tournaments run by third-party organizers, all of which compete for player attention and form a kind of tangled web of possible paths for teams.

Two of the big names behind these tournaments, DreamHack and ESL, have announced a collaborative effort to try to untangle that web and corner the market. Offering two tiers of competitive play throughout the year - a Challenger tier for newer teams looking to test their mettle and a Masters tier for higher ranked teams - these two organizers aim to simplify the CS:GO tournament landscape through a variety of events, with a total prize pool of $5 million altogether.

Of course, eligibility is based on not participating in other tournaments run through other organizers, like FACEIT, within a certain window. These eligibility requirements have caused some controversy within the CS:GO community.

For brands looking to position themselves with CS:GO and its players, ESL Pro Tour events could provide a great opportunity. But the ESL Pro Tour won’t begin until 2020, so this is something interested brands might just want to keep an eye on.

Looking Ahead

As the esports industry develops and establishes itself within our culture, we see more and more games being created, some of which even focus on competitive play (such as Overwatch and Apex Legends). Inevitably as these games mature and become popular, we should see more competitive leagues form, which in turn will provide new opportunities for different audiences as well as for marketers.

For game developers and publishers, this is also beneficial. Pro leagues focus viewer attention away from influencers, toward one source. This makes formulating business strategies easier. It consolidates merchandising and makes brand safety less of a concern, as monitoring how their IP is used becomes easier.

However, many of these leagues may struggle to build infrastructure. The prize pools necessary for these competitions may exhaust company resources, and building viewership from the ground up can be challenging without smart strategies and marketing.

While it’s important to follow new developments in esports, it’s also important to gather as much information as possible before forming strategies. Most of the competitions in this installment, while promising, may only become suitable prospects when they’ve proven themselves sustainable, which is why monitoring their growth in the future may be wise.

Don't hesitate to reach out with any questions or comments:

Disclosure: I'm an Account Director at Rogers & Cowan responsible for managing and supporting global esports sponsorships (digital, social, and on-site activations) for Mastercard.