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Telecom giant AT&T was described as “dipping toes into esports” when it first partnered with tournament operator ESL in June 2018 and activated at the E3 gaming convention. One year later, however, it’s fair to say that AT&T has fully submerged itself in the industry, thanks to additional sponsorships of Cloud9 and the NBA 2K League, as well as the March launch of the ESL Mobile Open tournament series.
AT&T further renewed its commitment to the space in July with the announcement of an expanded partnership with ESL that will run through 2020, along with a new partnership with ESL’s sister company DreamHack, which shares an owner in MTG. Between the two deals, AT&T will expand its footprint at North American events throughout next year, and we already saw a larger presence at last month’s Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) Chicago Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) tournament.
Following the announcement of the expanded ESL partnership and additional DreamHack deal, The Esports Observer spoke with executives from all three companies about the benefits of the alliance, key takeaways from the previous year’s deal, and how AT&T and ESL have helped each other grow and improve since teaming up.
AT&T’s Approach to Esports
AT&T’s activation at IEM Chicago 2019 was much wider-ranging than the one at the previous event last November. That’s partially due to the switch away from the smaller Wintrust Arena, and also enhanced by the fact that AT&T already has a relationship with the United Center, the home of the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks.
The United Center not only featured a large, naturally-lit atrium for AT&T to spotlight console and PC game stations for attendees to play, but also provided additional space for the company to spread around the venue. Rather than group everything together in one spot, AT&T had a separate ESL Mobile Open activation with playable smartphones in the concourse, and also used its existing AT&T Digital Lounge in the venue to host branded team signing sessions.
“With the expansion of the partnership, we’ve really focused on a couple of areas,” Shiz Suzuki, AT&T’s assistant vice president of experiential marketing & sponsorship, told The Esports Observer. “One being: How can we one-up that experience onsite? That’s been an area that is really important to us. It’s always about: How do we bring benefits to the gamers and the gaming fans?”
Beyond providing games to play between matches, AT&T added new activation elements for IEM Chicago 2019. One, called “Best Seats in the House,” allowed fans to compete in those on-site games for a chance to win special floor seats in a VIP area of the venue. AT&T also offered special benefits to its mobile customers, establishing a separate entrance for faster access to the United Center, along with a shorter line for signing sessions. All told, Suzuki suggested that AT&T’s aim is to figure out where it can enhance the event experience.
“It’s really about finding: What are the unmet needs, and how can we not only meet them but exceed them?” she said. “Deeply connecting with this customer segment is really important to us, and the way in which we went about it is really about providing them with benefits and things they can’t get access to elsewhere.”
Suzuki added that AT&T has been thoughtful about its moves in esports so far and has aimed to approach them in a way that is unique to the space, rather than necessarily repeating tactics and techniques honed in traditional sports or other industries.
“For us, it’s been an exciting place to be. Historically, we’ve been in a lot of stick-and-ball sports activities, whether that be golf or football, and we have naming rights properties, etc,” she said. “We really want to be in this space in a way that is all about the gamers and the gaming fans, and we’ve been very careful about that. That’s been a very intentional place for us, in terms of our approach, is that we really looked at the activation a completely different way and it’s been about: What is the fan base, whether it be onsite or mobile on-the-go, and how can we help them have a better experience?”
What DreamHack Offers
March’s launch of the ESL Mobile Open not only provided a natural opportunity for AT&T sponsorship, but also a bridge to expand into DreamHack events. AT&T activated at ESL One New York and IEM Chicago CS:GO tournaments in 2018, and will do the same this time around. However, the ESL Mobile Open tournament schedule included a season one finals event at DreamHack Dallas in June, with the season three finals taking place at DreamHack Atlanta this November. AT&T will activate at the event.
“What’s really exciting for us out of DreamHack is really about the fact that it’s about esports, but it’s also about gaming overall,” said Suzuki. “It’s not just the opportunity for us to be onsite and the experiences we can bring there, but it’s also to connect with the audience that is there for gameplay.”
While IEM Chicago and ESL One New York are primarily focused on CS:GO and professional competition, DreamHack delivers wider-ranging appeal. Each event features pro teams and players, true, but also amateur teams in open qualifiers across a number of different competitive games. The events also let players bring their own PCs, as well as play tabletop games and experience other activities. It’s an esports event, but it’s also more than that.
“DreamHack has a more diverse audience than ESL, as our festivals focus on capturing hundreds of different communities, all within the umbrella of gaming,” said DreamHack co-CEO Marcus Lindmark. “We then help AT&T to connect with the audience of these communities.
“AT&T is a reliable partner that can help us expand in the U.S. through their great reach, the products we can leverage, and activations they can bring onsite for our visitors,” he added. “They will be a valuable partner in helping DreamHack expand, allowing for more Americans to visit DreamHack events.”
Expanding with ESL
Paul Brewer, ESL North America’s senior vice president of brand partnerships, honed in on a point that Suzuki had also mentioned: the idea that AT&T is endemic to the esports space. It’s not meant as revisionist history; after all, the company hadn’t really made esports-related moves before last year’s ESL partnership. Rather, the idea is that AT&T’s focus on connectivity and network technology—both key to esports competition—makes the company less of an outside force than it might seem on the surface.
“Even in a world in which we talk about endemics and non-endemics, we realized that AT&T is actually very endemic to the space—based on who they are and what they are as a product,” said Brewer, who pointed to the ESL Mobile Open as a collaboration that’s well suited to AT&T’s brand and services. “There’s a very real relevance for them in esports that I don’t think a lot of people realized.”
According to Brewer, the first year of the deal allowed AT&T to gain visibility through ESL’s two key North American events, but the expanded partnership and launch of the ESL Mobile Open allow for an even broader reach to further cement AT&T’s place in the industry. Adding DreamHack into the equation only enhances the value for the telecom.
“Last year, in 2018, we were able to get AT&T some really good exposure and experience in the esports space through IEM Chicago in Wintrust and ESL One here in New York. And credit to them, they’re very smart marketers—as they look to increase their mind share and share of voice within the esports space in this country, they really did a good job of looking at the big heat moments where they can show up,” he said. “Being able to tie together DreamHack assets along with ESL assets was the best thing that we’ve done [this time around]. So instead of two events, we’re talking about four big events that they’ll be part of.”
With AT&T secured as a partner through the end of next year, ESL is now focused on making the most of the alliance. The ESL Mobile Open will continue on through November and has expanded player eligibility from the continental United States throughout North America, and IEM Chicago already showed the potential of doing more with AT&T at onsite events.
“Overall, the partnership went from, ‘We’re going to test this a little bit and see what works,’ to ‘Alright, now we know what works, and we think there’s opportunity to expand and more importantly create bigger platforms and more opportunities for gamers across different platforms,’” said Brewer. “It’s pretty exciting that we’re not only doing more with them, but we’re locked in through 2020. The longer-term partnership is, I think, a sign of validity to the space, but also exciting for us because we know what we’re going to be doing with them for two years.”
Collaborating, But Also Learning
In separate conversations, both Suzuki and Brewer suggested that the partnership has helped their respective companies learn and grow. For AT&T, linking up with ESL last year offered a key connection to esports fans in the United States, and allowed it to benefit from ESL’s experience in the space. As for ESL, Brewer said that AT&T’s vast experience working with traditional sports leagues is rubbing off on the 19-year-old esports company in a positive way.
“The success has been about a true partnership with ESL, to be honest,” said Suzuki. “There’s been a lot that we’ve learned from them, and that is something we really look for in a partner. It’s about understanding the audience and making sure we were bringing experiences and assets.”
“Because they’ve done such smart things in traditional sports—think about AT&T’s presence in golf and basketball, and all kinds of other things—they’re pushing us to level up, to get better, and to be more sophisticated as a platform and as a league, quite frankly,” said Brewer. “The feedback that we got across the board—not only does AT&T validate the space, but they’re also helping us to be better as a property.”
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