Last week, sports industry media company SportsPro released their list of the “World’s 50 Most Marketable Properties” in sports and, perhaps surprisingly, both League of Legends and Call of Duty made the cut — coming in at 12th and 41st, respectively.
This may sound extreme to some, with just football housing numerous world-renowned properties; from the Premier League, to the UEFA Champions League, to the FIFA World Cup itself. Add in that teams themselves are very much properties in their own rights and the listing of both League of Legends & Call of Duty may be pungent sources of contention for some.
The first thing that must be considered when judging whether esports titles can stand tall against well-established, decades-spanning sports properties is the set of criteria used to base judgements and estimates on. By now, almost everybody who’s a sports fan has been exposed to esports in one shape or form — whether through an ESPN broadcast or F1 wholly embracing its gaming counterpart during the global health crisis — but there’s still a lot of convincing to do as to esports being a sport (operating on the belief that it’s necessary at all).
SportsPro used a “universal currency,” devised by SponsorPulse, to identify the opportunity score of over 185 global sports properties, made up of seven key metrics that were tested on over 30,000 people each month.
Engagement, excitement, favorability, intensity, momentum, passion, and purchase consideration are the metrics used to develop the overall score that properties were compared upon. These metrics provide what I believe to be a somewhat fair foundation to judge the overall hype, attraction, and commercial viability of a sports property — it satisfactorily serves its purpose.
With any sort of list or power ranking it’s important to take into account bias and subjectivity, and scoring properties still offers the opportunity for those things to creep in, but at least we know the boundaries in which we’re operating.
Finally, let’s get into the infiltration of this list from two interestingly-contrasting titles.
The League of Extraordinary Growth
Riot Games may have finally warranted the “s” in its name with the expansion of its offering through Valorant, Wild Rift, Teamfight Tactics, and Legends of Runeterra, but League of Legends is still the developer’s golden child.
Released in 2009, it’s not taken long for household brands — the likes of Spotify, Mercedes-Benz, and Louis Vuitton — to get involved on the esports side of the equation, and it’s impressive when compared to the commercial interest and scale of other upstart sporting efforts like the XFL.
For this year’s League of Legends World Championship, Riot Games has put together its most impressive roster of partners to date by mixing endemic and household names together in a variety of activations. From Cisco providing network infrastructure to Red Bull sponsoring in-game happenings, not to mention in-game banners for Mastercard and Alienware, there’s a lot of value to be obtained by putting a brand in front of an average of almost 1,000,000 avid gamers (according to Esports Charts.)
This level of pull for Riot Games isn’t commonplace in esports by any degree of the imagination. It’s a testament to the attractive, successful property that the developer has built over the course of a decade and the hard work of employees such as Naz Aletaha, who serves as the head of global esports partnerships. It’s not possible for every game to secure a breadth of mainstream and endemic brands like this.
Now, the list doesn’t state whether it’s the League of Legends esports ecosystem as a whole or simply its global efforts that found its way to 12th place, which could change things significantly. If it indeed includes the entire game’s competitive efforts, then you also have to consider LEC’s KitKat, Kia, and Shell, and LCS’ Buffalo Wild Wings, Samsung, and Verizon, for example. This possibility alone speaks volumes about the depth of commercial opportunities that the MOBA yields.
The League of Legends competitive scene has undergone impressive growth with the formation of its regional approach — its Belgian League alone is sponsored by Audi and Burger King — and it creates an almighty commercial offering for prospective partners on a global, regional, and national level. This infrastructure can’t be found to this degree in other major titles, whether it’s Dota 2 or Fortnite.
It’s worth considering that Chinese live streaming company Bilibili reportedly paid around $115M to acquire the Chinese broadcast rights to just the League of Legends World Championship for three-years. Media rights may be the main revenue stream for sports properties but that’s not the case in esports, though Riot Games’ flagship game is showing that it’s possible.
League of Legends on a casual basis is huge across Asia and Europe and popular in North America, so it has an amazing viewer base, a whole host of competitive offerings, and the hype of non-savvy spectators of esports as a whole. With all of this in mind, it’s entirely possible that Riot Games’ MOBA could be a more enticing marketing option for companies looking to advertise to a legion of young, technology-adept potential customers.
All-in-all, it’s fair for League of Legends to be highly-regarded through a commercial lens and I feel it indeed deserves to be high in the list.
Call of Duty League leapfrogs Overwatch League
Sneaking onto the list in 41st place, ahead of the New England Patriots, Paris Saint-Germain, and tennis’ French Open, is the Call of Duty League.
A repackaged and reformatted version of the Call of Duty World League that had been chugging along at modest viewership numbers for years, the Call of Duty League is the second geolocated franchised league to come from Activision Blizzard following the Overwatch League.
Despite having to readjust its plans of having franchises hosting events in their home cities due to unfortunate circumstance, the competition had no problem in attracting commercial partners — nor more viewers.
Long written off as a “dead” esport that will only ever entertain hardcore Call of Duty fans, Call of Duty League and its 12 shiny new franchises drummed up a lot of interest and secured a lot of deals. The likes of Sony, PepsiCo, YouTube, the U.S. Army, and T-Mobile all chose to get in on the action despite a pivot to online play.
Despite a lack of transparency in the financial terms of most deals in the esports industry, we know such partnerships aren’t being sold for pennies. The narrative of a new league, which is capitalizing on the titanic player base of the Call of Duty franchise, growing in viewership and looking to drum up location-based fandoms like in traditional sports, is compelling for marketing managers at technology and consumer-good companies.
Let’s be real. The viewership for Call of Duty esports is dwarfed by a plethora of other games so it simply doesn’t pack as much of a punch when it comes to putting eyeballs on a brand’s logo. What it does have in its back pocket, though, is that a high percentile of the existing viewers are avid players of the franchise and have likely supported competitive Call of Duty for years. Consider the legion of fans that a Scump or FormaL has, never mind an OpTic Gaming (which was spiritually succeeded by NRG’s Chicago Huntsmen and is the fastest-growing franchise in the league) or FaZe Clan.
So while it may not be the biggest league in the industry, Call of Duty League has a lot of merits — viewership is growing, new players are climbing through the ranks and building followings, the city-based approach has freshened things up, it has a lot of capital behind it (which allows for experimentation) and, importantly, new and existing companies alike are flocking to advertise through it.
What may be surprising here is how Call of Duty League has managed to make the Top 50 following its inaugural season, while its predecessor and sister competition, the Overwatch League, is nowhere to be seen.
This could be down to dwindling passion and viewership in the league, a degrading interest in the game’s casual player base, or simply that brands such as State Farm, T-Mobile, and Coca-Cola are much less plentiful in terms of commercial interest when compared to the exciting, industry-rattling launch of the competition.
Turning a casual fan base into a viable esports market
Looking at the two titles in comparison, they’re both hermetically-sealed and entirely governed by their wealthy and well-connected developers. They each have rabid casual fan bases spanning multiple regions, and both are garnering more eyeballs than ever on platforms such as Twitch and YouTube.
When it comes to the CDL, the LCS, the LEC, and similar League of Legends endeavors, you know which team brands are going to be involved for the long-term. There’s no risk of smaller, less attractive organisations with less resources or popularity being promoted into the league. Other major titles you may think of, such as Valve’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or Dota 2, are structured differently when it comes to esports.
CS:GO has tournament organizers battling each other with no means of commercially acquiring a package deal across them all. Valve isn’t particularly interested in getting involved with that, nor controlling the ecosystem itself, unlike what Activision Blizzard and Riot Games have done themselves.
This results in a more fragmented and less reliable means of advertisement and marketing for brands, and that’s why you see the same faces — Intel, Betway, and DHL, for example — and rarely any additions when it comes to Valve’s iconic FPS.
Whether it’s believed that esports is a sport or not, it’s clear that some titles are proving to be a hit when it comes to sales, and that’s a promising sign for the future of esports should others follow suit before long.