Measuring the Impact of the Adidas/Ninja Partnership in Esports
Last week, Adidas signed its first professional video game streamer, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, to be a brand ambassador – and it’s about time. This multi-year partnership marks a significant shift in the esports landscape, as non-endemic brands (like Adidas) become increasingly involved in the industry. Adidas has said that it will continue to find new ways to support the 2.3 billion gamers across the world, and this deal is meant to show its commitment to gaming culture. No specific details of the partnership have been formally revealed, but our estimate is that it is a lucrative deal for Ninja, who currently earns an estimated $500,000 USD per month streaming on Microsoft’s Mixer platform. Ninja has also recently introduced his own toy line.
The Esports Opportunity: Why Non-Endemic Brands are Itching to Get Involved
Over the past decade, esports have risen from relative obscurity to a global phenomenon. Such torrid growth shows no signs of slowing. In 2015, global esports revenue totaled $325 million USD. Since then, that figure has nearly tripled, climbing to almost $1 billion USD in 2018. In 2017 alone, approximately 385 million individuals tuned into an esports event, with the League of Legends Grand Final attracting 80 million viewers alone. In the period between 2006 and 2018, esports prize pools (awarded to winning teams in tournaments) have grown from a humble $4.4 million USD to over $170 million USD. Overall, the esports trajectory has been strictly skyward.
In 2018, the esports industry had a global fan base of 380 million, with 37% being males aged 21-35 years old, and 16% being females between 21-35 years old. In the US alone, 61% of esports viewers earned more than $50,000 USD annually, when the average American individual earned just over $31,000 USD. Esports viewership is composed of individuals who are higher-than-average earners, which means they have more disposable income to spend on entertainment.
Additionally, this young demographic is generally less receptive to most traditional forms of marketing. Access to such a high-earning, and otherwise reticent, segment of the population has proven to be valuable for brands. Accordingly, esports offers a unique gateway for these non-endemic brands to gain authentic exposure amongst this younger audience.
What’s Next for Esports Sponsorship?
Although big brands have been involved in the esports space for a while, Adidas’ agreement with Ninja represents an important transition towards individual, and not industry, partnerships in esports. We will likely continue to see the trend of large, non-endemic brands relying on the popularity and authenticity of esports influencers as an avenue into this space. Going further, it won’t be long before we start seeing these partnerships transcend beyond the virtual world and into the physical world as well. For example, Mercedes-Benz has consistently sought out sponsorship opportunities in esports, partnering with Electronic Sports League (“ESL”) in 2017 through to 2021. A Mercedes-Benz board member would go on record to say, “we are systematically expanding our involvement in eSports[…] as a global brand, we want to open ourselves up to new target groups. eSports gets us into a dialogue with young people, especially those with an affinity to technology.” Mercedes-Benz has been able to rejuvenate their brand by appealing to the future generation of luxury car owners.
Unlike Mercedes-Benz, Adidas’ focus on an individual like Ninja (and not a league, such as the ESL) does come with its drawbacks. In particular, as video game influencers continue to gain larger followings built on the social aspects of their entertainment value, the recognition of their own personal brand may deter them away from the structure of traditional partnerships. In fact, certain gaming influencers are rapidly outpacing the value of the professional esports teams to which they are contracted. As a result, sponsoring individual esports influencers can potentially result in a loss of leverage for sponsors, as their brand equity is inextricably tied to that of the individual influencer for the duration of their partnership.
The Adidas-Ninja partnership represents another important step forward in the professionalization and credibility of the esports industry. Non-endemic brands who were once hesitant to sponsor individual streamers and players are now taking notice – driven by the hope of authentically accessing a uniquely sought-after demographic. Although esports differs from traditional sports, it appears that brands are finally willing to treat them as equals.
 Deborah Bothum and Matthew Lieberman, “The Burgeoning Evolution of eSports” (2016), online: PwC Consumer Intelligence Series <https://www.pwc.se/sv/pdf- reports/the-burgeoning-evolution- of-esports.pdf>.
 Global eSports Market Report (2018), online: Newzoo: <https://newzoo.com/insights/trend-reports/global-esports-market-report-2018-light/>.
 Deloitte & The eSports Observer: The Rise of eSports Investment, April 2019, at p. 24.
 Electronic Sports League (ESL) press release <https://www.eslgaming.com/press/mercedes-benz-expands-partnership-esl>.