How Esports Showed Up as Dependable Entertainment in 2020

Leaders in space on how pre- and post-Covid learnings will inform 2021 strategy

a woman with headphones on in a zoom conference
Johanna Faries, commissioner of Call of Duty Esports at Activision Blizzard, discusses where the franchise will go from here. Adweek
Headshot of Ian Zelaya

The Covid-19 pandemic drastically changed how traditional sports leagues played games and engaged fans this year. But esports is one of few industries that successfully adapted to reach consumers stuck at home.

In the last two years, gaming has rapidly evolved to mirror traditional sports, with video game publishers franchising esports leagues and launching global competition tours witnessed in person by thousands of fans. After the pandemic canceled live stadium tours for games including Call of Duty and Overwatch this year, marketers quickly proved how esports can be just as exciting in one’s living room. 

At Adweek’s virtual Brandweek Sports Marketing Summit this week, experts from publisher Activision Blizzard and gaming and apparel organization 100 Thieves discussed how they nimbly pivoted during the pandemic and how it will continue growing as a virtual-physical hybrid model. 

Priming to go fully virtual

In January, 100 Thieves opened the 100 Thieves Cash App Compound, the largest esports facility in North America, and executed its first retail drop in February. The company’s 2020 expansion strategy was anchored by in-person and retail components, but Covid-19 forced them to take that strategy fully digital. 

“Gaming has this special opportunity to transcend beyond any challenges different businesses might be facing,” 100 Thieves founder and CEO Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag said.

President and COO John Robinson said the technical pivot wasn’t a massive challenge, but the company made sure to contribute to relevant causes during virtual competitions. The company, which owns the Call of Duty league franchise Los Angeles Thieves, gave proceeds from the Call of Duty: War Zone tournament in the spring to Covid-19 research organizations and followed up by facilitating a tournament that benefitted Black Lives Matter and social justice causes. 

Clockwise: Adweek chief brand officer Danny Wright; 100 Thieves founder and CEO Matthew "Nadeshot" Haag; Espat TV CEO Dante Simpson; 100 Thieves president and COO John Robinson.
Clockwise: Adweek chief brand officer Danny Wright; 100 Thieves founder and CEO Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag; Espat TV CEO Dante Simpson; 100 Thieves president and COO John Robinson.Adweek

Johanna Faries, commissioner of Call of Duty Esports for Activision Blizzard, told Adweek’s brand reporter Ryan Barwick that the publisher’s main focus in late 2019 was to launch a “sports league of the future” with its Call of Duty world tour.

“We thought the biggest learning would be how to launch an ambitious esports league that rivals others in the space and rivals traditional sports,” she said. “But the biggest learning is that esports can actually pivot and get back on track with a completely different model. We orchestrated remote live competitions from bedrooms all over North America instead of a main stage, and did it in a matter of weeks.”

With the potential of live events making a comeback in 2021, Faries said Activision Blizzard won’t pivot its focus back to prepandemic times, but leverage both the physical and virtual space.

“We want to think about optimization and then start to refine our option set,” she said. “Most companies and experiences are trying to get back to old normal. We’re trying to get back to the old normal, plus the new normal. To be able to harness both will put us in a powerful position.”

Warming up to partnerships

While the industry was once considered niche, more mainstream brands are partnering with esports companies. For instance, 100 Thieves has recently struck deals with Cash App, General Mills and Totino’s, with Haag and Robinson explaining they choose partners that will feel authentic to gamers.

“We love working with brands that understand that we understand our audience the best,” Haag said. “They have brand guidelines, but trust us to deliver [their message] in a way that resonates with our audience, so it doesn’t seem fake or like a paid advertisement.” Ian Zelaya is an Adweek reporter covering how brands engage with consumers in the modern world, ranging from experiential marketing and social media to email marketing and customer experience.