British competitive gaming brand Excel Esports has recently finished a run of appearances at industry conferences Gamescom, i71, and Paris Games Week in partnership with global sports retailer JD Sports, as well as working on initiatives with financial services partner HSBC.

This is in addition to other existing partnerships with food delivery app Just Eat, gaming gear brand Sony Inzone, computer equipment firm PC Specialist, and UK mobile network EE.

Esports has managed to attract traditional companies as partners, yet it has had to do so differently, with esports facing different challenges to traditional sports, leading to unique partnerships.       

Brands are often not aware of who the various esports companies are, or their audience’s demographic, both of which would not be the case when approaching a soccer team in England's top-tier Premier League, for example.

Additional challenges come from different audiences, who pose unique challenges such as using advert-blocking software and having the tendency to go outside less often than a traditional sports fan, as well as being more hostile to partnerships that they feel are inauthentic.

However, esports also holds unique advantages for brands over traditional sports, such as its online nature, meaning partners can target a global audience regularly and easily, with the various esports not being tied to specific regions in the same way sports are, or the fact that since esports does not have the physical requirements traditional sports have, we could see esports with mixed gender leagues in future.

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Of course, it is also worth mentioning esports’ huge viewing figures, such as viewership for the League of Legends World Championships having previously beaten the Super Bowl, meaning esports is forcing brands to get involved regardless of any perceived issues.

Speaking to Sportcal (GlobalData Sport), Excel Esports’ partnerships manager Jordan Bedford explains the differences between esports and traditional sports partnerships.

How do esports partnerships differ from regular sports?

“I got into esports looking at the commercial opportunity there. So in traditional sports, a lot of sponsorship is hospitality, sticking logos on things, and nice banners around adverts, whereas with esports it's a lot more creative.

“You've got young people who use ad blockers who don't go outside. So you have to find new creative ways to engage with young people.

“We work with some amazing brands like JD sports, and EE, who you kind of expect to be in the gaming space, but we also work with HSBC. You probably wouldn't expect them to be involved in esports but they are a beast of a business who are looking at consumer banking, making sure that young people are really educated and financially literate.”

Can you tell us more about the HSBC partnership?

“HSBC has a storied history in sports sponsorship, so they have been the front of shirt sponsor for the British Lions in rugby, and they sponsor [EPL club] Tottenham Hotspur, they work with Emma Radecanu in tennis and previously sponsored Wimbledon, so, in general, are no strangers to sponsorship.

“So, as we look forward, they've been turning their attention to the future to young people, to the digital generation, and they internally and with their agency went on a long journey of exploration around what is gaming? What is esports? what is the metaverse? All those things.

“They landed on esports as a place they felt they should be, engaging young people, still all of the stuff you'd expect about competition sports being, you know, the competition is at the center of it.

“It was a bit of a pitching process, we put forward our sponsorship, they speak to other rights holders, and Excel very much positioned itself as a brand that can be a really good entry point. We will be able to give you that real hands-on approach, and we take you to the big events to help you understand these points, alongside providing rights and producing content, social media, all sorts of things.”

Is it normal for traditional brands to be so proactive about esports sponsorship?

“It's a hugely educational process. It's not like football where you know if you can work with [EPL club] Chelsea – you know who Chelsea are, you know what they stand for, you know probably a lot of their players.

“Esports, there's a lot of education around what is it? How does it work? Who are these young people? Huge misconceptions about the age of our audience. You might think it's 16, but realistically, it's kind of 25 to 30. And that's interesting to brands.

“These are people who have a passion, probably have quite a lot of disposable income, or if this is their main passion, this is what they're going to spend their money on, hugely interesting to brands.

“I think that the world's biggest brands, their marketing leadership teams, they need to have an answer to gaming, it's no longer a niche subsection. In esports, viewership for League of Legends World Championships is bigger than the Super Bowl, and it's not even close, so brands need an answer to it.

“There are obviously challenges around things like brand safety, you wouldn't expect your football ambassador to swear. But some brands are really comfortable with any sport.

“You also have challenges like the use of guns in games which some lazy marketers may go ‘Well we're aligning with violence,' and the consumers just don't see it that way. We have really good data to share with brands that say you can be active in a game that involves shooting, it doesn't mean anything about the audience. There's no crossover there in terms of violent games and violent people.”

What are the challenges unique to esports?

“Our business model is very similar to traditional sports rights holders. But what we lack is huge merchandise revenues, we don't have that kind of connection with the community. Some teams do, some teams don't.

“We also don't have our own stadium so we don't sell season tickets or hospitality or food or drink. So these are all revenue challenges that we face.

“What we do have is the potential, but we have to work very closely with the publishers on this because it's their game, to generate revenue from in-game activities. The biggest esports titles in the world, League of Legends, Counter Strike, are free-to-play games and they monetize through in-game items.

“If we're able to produce branded in-game items, with a revenue share with publishers, that's hugely exciting for us and it feels like that's how the industry is going. Some game titles do have that, some don't.”#

How does gender in esports differ from traditional sports?

“The challenge that we have is around diversity. Esports is predominantly a male activity. And it's about 80/20 So 80% of players are male.

“Excel runs a team which is an all-female roster. We compete in the Riot Games top-tier ecosystem, and the goal is not to have a Women's League and a Men's League in esports. You could take the physical differences out of it.

“We should be able to have a truly mixed gender top tier ecosystem and I 100% believe that will happen. Some people will say in the next five years, I think in the next two years we'll have a woman playing on the biggest stages in the world.

“So I think that's hugely exciting about our industry, that we have the potential to have trade and export which I think we'll never see in boxing or rugby for example, where physical differences have a huge impact on results but also health and wellbeing, whereas esports, if done correctly, we should be able to foster that, a properly inclusive setting.”

How do you approach the formation of partnerships in the regions you are targeting?

“We're really lucky to be a founding member of the LEC, which is the League of Legends EMEA championships. That league is viewed in over 200 countries worldwide and it's the biggest league outside of China and Korea in terms of stable week-in-week-out viewership.

“I think languages are massive, gamers generally communicate in English when they compete online in private ranked environments. But what we want to do is get to a point where we can produce one piece of content and have it reworked into English and Spanish and French and German. Very possible in esports.

“What brings esports together is a digitally native community, and we have people speaking together in Discord from Brazil and from Korea, the UK, and Germany, so esports people are an online nation, and Excel as well as a brand is not like a football club or a rugby club, it isn't linked to a specific place.

“We were born in the UK but we have an office in Berlin, and we're not tied to certain regions like traditional rights holders might be.”