Partnerships and sponsorships are the lifeblood of esports, for better or for worse. Without companies investing in the industry in order to advertise their products and services, nobody knows where competitive gaming would be in its lifespan.
No matter the obstacles that are thrown its way, esports continues to successfully receive capital and use it to fuel their operations. This is the case whether it’s a tournament organizer, a team organization, or a supportive company on the periphery of the industry.
With this in mind, we’re used to seeing huge deals announced and it’s easy to lose track of the progress we’re making collectively over a longer-term. I’ve compiled what I believe to be the biggest esports partnerships of 2020, including why they’ve made the cut, as a point of reference; it’s important to document so we can better track progress in the future.
The biggest esports partnerships of 2020
BMW and Cloud9, Fnatic, FunPlus Phoenix, G2 Esports, T1
Date: April 16
Details: Under the banner of ‘United in Rivalry,’ BMW partnered with five of the most well-known organizations in League of Legends. Acting as a social media and jersey sponsor but also much more, BMW aims to introduce esports to a wider audience and provides vehicles for the teams to utilize.
Importance: BMW being a household name across multiple regions and deciding to further invest in esports is nothing to scoff at, especially considering the calibre of organizations they drafted for this initiative. Considering the narratives between Europe vs. North America, Europe vs. Asia, Europe attempting to win at Worlds, and North America failing to show up at global events, this is a very clear move by the automotive giants. What they’ve produced in 2020, despite the global situation, is a great sign of things to come.
Fnatic and Gucci
Date: June 25
Details: After teasing a collaboration at the top of the year, Gucci officially entered esports in June by partnering with British organization Fnatic. A watch inspired by the team’s League of Legends team was unveiled, sitting at a price of £1,150 with limited availability.
Importance: Much like the monumental success of Louis Vuitton’s foray into esports in 2019 through League of Legends, Gucci’s arrival was the subject of plenty of attention from across the industry when it was announced. Though they’ve not done much since they launched their co-branded watch with Fnatic, we’re almost certain the product launch was a success and they’ll want to see how much deeper they can go.
This partnership further proved that luxury brands can work in esports, even if many fans are yet to open their wallets in a similar way to what is seen in sports.
T1 and Nike
Date: January 16
Details: Nike produces uniforms for all of T1’s rosters, including their team in the LCK, as the organization’s exclusive apparel partner. The sportswear giants also provided “cutting-edge training facilities” at the org’s headquarters in Seoul to help with player development.
Importance: Though Nike had already operated in esports through a deal with the Chinese League of Legends competition LPL, this was perhaps a more impactful deal on a global basis. Almost everybody knows Nike and this partnership is a sign of significant investment and involvement for them, much like they’ve provided in traditional sports for decades. T1 just so happen to be one of the most popular team brands in the industry, too, which doesn’t hurt.
Activision Blizzard and Google
Date: January 24
Details: Google acquired the broadcast rights to the Overwatch League, Call of Duty League, and Hearthstone esports in a multi-year deal. In exchange, Google Cloud was announced as the preferred provider of gaming hosting for the developer’s titles.
Importance: Following the industry-rattling deal between Twitch and Activision Blizzard for the rights to stream the Overwatch League, all eyes were on what was next for the developer. It had not only found a new home for its first franchised league, but it also coincided with the Call of Duty League’s launch.
While YouTube proved to not be as fleshed-out a live platform as Twitch, they made good improvements over the course of the year and they have plenty more time to optimize their services. Call of Duty esports even hit record viewership, despite being exclusive to YouTube.
Vindex and IMAX
Date: January 7
Details: The deal includes Vindex creating and broadcasting esports events and experiences for IMAX theatres on a global basis. Vindex Studios, a division that was newly-formed at the time of the announcement, signals an exciting new area of concentration for the company which was founded by those behind MLG.
Importance: Though these plans didn’t come into fruition in 2020 due to social restrictions, people were awaiting MLG’s co-founders to make a major move and this certainly fit the bill. This partnership came early in Vindex’s lifespan and delivering esports programming to IMAX theatres around the world is undeniably a great opportunity for the industry to reach new audiences.
LEC and NEOM
Date: July 29
Details: Riot Games’ premier European competition LEC announced a deal with Saudi initiative NEOM, which is aiming to become an esports hub, for its 2020 Summer Split. It was said that NEOM would help to “future-proof” LEC’s stage and sponsor a broadcast segment during live broadcasts,
Importance: This made waves across the entirety of esports but for the wrong reasons. After sizeable pushback and criticism of NEOM, the deal was promptly cancelled and tarnished the squeaky-clean reputation that the European competition had. It also brought about a conversation regarding values that companies have and what they will look past to receive money.
League of Legends Esports and Getty Images
Date: July 13
Details: Riot Games appointed Getty Images as an official partner of League of Legends’ global events through to 2024, meaning they would serve as the official photo and distribution partner for the World Championship, Mid-Season Invitational, and All-Star Event. This includes taking photos and managing licensing requests.
Importance: Getty Images are a major player in traditional sports. Prominent leagues and bodies such as the NBA, MLB, NHL, FIFA, UFC, and NASCAR all make use of their services, providing a plethora of great photos available for a number of uses. Seeing them officially enter esports, having already worked in it in a fleeting manner, was another sign of acceptance for the industry — no matter whether you believe that’s necessary or otherwise. Having great photos available at any given moment is of underrated benefit to all companies in esports.
League of Legends Esports and Spotify
Date: August 24
Details: This partnership spawned an official hub for League of Legends music — both new and existing — on Spotify. The deal also included the creation of new podcasts based on the MOBA title, as well as providing behind-the-scenes access to the coveted League of Legends World Championship anthem.
Importance: Spotify have occupied the top spot in the world of music and podcast streaming for the majority of their existence, so when they officially embraced esports it sent a message. Picking LoL Esports was an easy choice, considering it’s the biggest title in competitive gaming, but nonetheless, it demonstrates the content marketing possibilities available in the industry that aren’t being explored to their fullest extent. This is not only a welcoming into the mainstream for esports but proof that plenty more can be done.
Misfits and Miami Heat, Orlando Magic
Date: July 28
Details: Florida-based organization expanded its partnerships with NBA franchise teams Miami Heat and Orlando Magic to “develop further opportunities in the endemic and non-endemic space” through a rights deal that aimed to include better sponsorship options.
Importance: Having already established a relationship, the two NBA franchises doubling down on their integration with Misfits could well provide some unparalleled activations that bridges the gap between sports and esports in the future. Having Misfits in their offering to potential sponsors provides a digital-first, young demographic that could be a perfect fit for some companies and even seal some deals.
Cloud9 and Guinevere Capital
Date: June 4
Details: Cloud9 entered a strategic partnership that would see Guinevere Capital, a minority shareholder in EXCEL ESPORTS, operate its Overwatch League franchise London Spitfire and Contenders team British Hurricane. The advisory and investment firm agreed to “build the foundations” for the franchise in 2021 through local commercial partnerships and community engagement.
Importance: This partnership proves that the location-based model utilized by Activision Blizzard’s franchised leagues — namely the Overwatch League and Call of Duty League — isn’t a walk in a park. From inception, London Spitfire was a British brand, owned by a North American organization, with a South Korean roster. A lot of logistical resources and cultural knowhow are needed to execute a project like this effectively, perhaps showing the flaws of having a geolocated brand in a global, online-first industry.
The jury is out as to whether these leagues will be a success, much like many of their counterparts from traditional sports, and this move signals that it’s no light task. We’ll have to keep an eye on how Guinevere Capital execute their plans but this was a landmark move in the latest frontier of esports.
Excel Esports and BT
Date: January 10
Details: A multi-year partnership that sees BT become EXCEL’s lead partner, sponsoring jerseys and their academy League of Legends roster. The telecommunications provider also kitted out EXCEL’s headquarters at Twickenham Stadium, London with new internet.
Importance: UK esports has a negative connotation surrounding it for some and it’s undeniably underdeveloped when compared to other prominent nations in the industry. Seeing a household brand from Britain investing not only in esports — but a homegrown organization no less — was a sign of hope for those who comprise the UK’s esports scene. The deal runs far beyond simply slapping a logo on social media channels, too, meaning BT are truly helping their partner and committing to the agreement.
So there you have it, a collection of the biggest esports partnerships that were unveiled in 2020. As the industry recovers from setbacks presented early in the year, we may well see an unprecedented level of brand deals after competitive gaming became one of the only entertainment products when sports events were postponed.