WASHINGTON, D.C. — Salty noodle centerpieces adorn counters and tables in a room flanked by two MGM employees and a “VIP Lounge” banner.
Those Nissin Cup Noodles displays were some of the more blatant sponsor advertisements attendees saw during the Rocket League Championship Series Season 4 World Championship at the MGM National Harbor Friday through Sunday.
“Subtle” is a word that could be used to describe the rest of the major ads. From logo projections in the Theater where the event was held to quick pop-ins during matches, Twitch took a different approach to Rocket League’s branding.
TheDW spoke with Twitch’s director of esport sponsorship sales, Nathan Lindberg, to learn more about how Twitch and Rocket League make their sponsorship, advertisement and placement decisions.
“Esports is not a place like the NFL or NBA where you have to be more choosy about who you want. Certainly, brands are opening up their minds to the opportunities around esports and understand that we’re here today and there are 3,000 people out there watching who are 18 to 34, the coveted demographic everyone wants to get,” Lindberg explained. “A lot of those people are not watching TV, so more and more brands are coming to the rapid realization that they need to get involved with this audience.”
They do have to be a little picky, though, because of the game’s E for Everyone rating. “There are brands we can’t work with, like gambling. We have to be sensitive because it’s the only E for Everyone esport. Most are T for Teen or M for Mature. With that rating carries a different demographic. We have to be a little bit stewards of protecting the brand and our customers from things that aren’t appropriate to be consumed.”
Surprisingly, Lindberg said Rocket League has the most excitement out of any league it works with in terms of advertisers.
“I’m not turning people away right now, but we’re quite full of sponsors for Rocket League. We have somewhere around seven paying sponsors for the league, six of which are non-endemic. It’s really an exciting place for us and sets the standard for esports. We work on a number of leagues, certainly none of our other leagues have that kind of excitement. Most other esports leagues barely have one or two sponsors, let alone six.”
One of those seven sponsors is Mobil 1, a car engine oil produced by ExxonMobil. That sponsorship, Lindberg said, is the one that puzzles people the most.
“Everyone scratches their head when I talk about Mobil 1 and their partnership. They’re a two-year sponsor, so when Rocket League launched they were one of the first brands who came in and got right on board. They’ve been doing the Mobil 1 High Performance replay for the last two years. That’s four seasons of Rocket League.”
Fans have become so attached to Mobil 1’s branding that they were the first ones to speak up when branding mysteriously disappeared during a game.
“We had a production glitch a couple weeks ago where we forgot to run the overlay for the High Performance replay and Twitch chat actually reminded us it wasn’t there.”
But advertisers still have a ways to go, Lindberg argued, before they reach their full potential for returns — and provide the best experience for fans.
“It’s funny because they’ve been a really great partner, we’d love to see them do more around the live event. If you think about it, they’re trying to future-proof their business. They’re trying to reach that next generation of customer.”
Brand placement becomes imperative for sponsors once it’s time for something like a World Championship. Lindberg said Twitch and Psyonix, the developer behind Rocket League, spent a lot of time figuring out how best to balance advertiser demands and the viewer’s experience.
“In broadcast we spend a lot of time working with Psyonix about making sure the broadcast is that kind of next evolution of great broadcasting. We’re lucky in the fact that we make money in a lot of different ways from esports, so the advertisement is an important part, but not the only part. So A) People are actually seeing it and B) People are remembering it.
“And so, the lower third. Most esport championships just paste them at the bottom of the screen. That’s great, but the reality is it becomes wallpaper. What we learned is the more we did those pop-ins and pop-outs, the higher recall we’d get from viewers. The more likely they’d be to remember than have it there omnipresent. It certainly hurts impression totals, but what we found with sponsors is that after they’d gone through a season and seen brand recall results, it works out better for us overall. We’re all very mindful of over-commercializing our esports properties. We’re trying to fit sponsors and clients in where it makes sense. It’s a big balancing act we have to do. When we bring in a new sponsor like Nissin, Old Spice or ExxonMobil, we only have finite areas were they make sense.
“We had to be mindful of the existing sponsorships and partnerships that MGM has. Given our event is one weekend, we couldn’t setup much in terms of physical branding on the walls around the Theater. Therefore, we had to get creative and utilize LED screens and light fixtures to ensure that our brands felt like they had a strong presence at the live finals.”
As for the Cup Noodles towers, Lindberg could only estimate how many Nissin had shipped them.
“I don’t know how many they [Nissin] brought, but it was substantial. I think we had something like, between Rocket League and the Tekken World Championship out in San Francisco, they sent us something like 3,000 boxes of Cup Noodles to give out.
“They’re fun brands and they want to have fun in the space. I think, going back to your original question of who do we pick and how do we get them, a lot of times we look at the brand and say, ‘Alright, we’ve got to have fun together or are you going to be rigid?’ We are a professional league and a professional product. We’re probably one of the best looking products in esports. We still have fun, right? This entire weekend everyone’s having a good time, no one’s taking themselves too seriously. We’re looking for the same thing in our brand matches. For next year, we want to push for more brand activations on-site. A lot of brands spend considerable amounts of money being associated with Rocket League and then don’t finish up, don’t close out.”
TheDW asked Lindberg to expand on what exactly he wanted to see in terms of on-site involvement.
“It’s open to the brand a little bit. I’d love to see more things for fans to do. One of my biggest frustrations is that when you look around the world of esports, this event in particular, this is about a 24-hour event over three days. Fans are here for a considerable amount of time. They’re not always watching the game. People get up and move around and there aren’t a lot of things to do,” Lindberg said. “There need to be more things for fans to do … I don’t necessarily need to have 2,000 consoles set up so people can play Rocket League, but I’d love to see a brand like Mobil 1 bring some of their VR experiences with Mobil 1 Racing. I’d love to see Old Spice do something with their octopus. If you think about every brand advertiser, they’re trying to get your attention. You’ve got someone basically cornered for 24 hours. The amount of cool things you can do there and the value you can get out of that are massive.”