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In any successful traditional sport, the corresponding apparel line is one of the most effective ways to reflect what the sport looks like, as a lifestyle and cultural phenomenon. At the end of the day, esports has become one of the fastest-growing industries, which includes not only sports but also entertainment. What should an esports apparel line look like? The answer to this question was hard to imagine until two sportswear giants entered the space.
In this article, The Esports Observer takes a closer look at how Nike and Li-Ning planned their esports strategies for the Chinese market, and what the difference is in how they approach the sector, as well as the outlook for esports apparel lines in the future.
Feb. 28 could be a significant milestone in Chinese esports history. Global sportswear brand Nike signed a four-year exclusive apparel sponsorship deal with TJ Sports for China’s League of Legends Pro League (LPL), running until 2022. TJ Sports is the joint venture between League of Legends publisher Riot Games and its parent company Tencent Holdings. This deal includes all LPL players, coaches, referees, and team managers exclusively wearing Nike branded clothing and shoes on game days. This was a time that people in the esports industry envisioned the LPL could become as recognized as the “NBA” in esports due to Nike’s global clout.
What Does Nike Do in Esports?
Nike made its first engagement with the Chinese esports space in October of 2018. The brand collaborated on a campaign with LeBron James to promote the NBA star’s documentary Shut Up & Dribble, which included a player from LPL team Royal Never Give-Up (RNG) — Jian “Uzi” Zihao. The poster was also posted on a wall near Huaihai Road, a central street of Shanghai.
After the “Nike X LPL” sponsorship deal was signed, Nike unveiled its first LPL co-branded t-shirt to the public on April 21, called “Gamer.” On Sept. 8, Nike unveiled all 16 LPL team uniforms, featuring a general “wide V style” with the Nike Swoosh and LPL logo but no team sponsor’s logos. Nike also released an LPL co-branded streetwear apparel collection, including t-shirts, hoodies, and shoes. Nike and TJ Sports both did not disclose the release timing for the new line at the time of writing.
What Does Li-Ning Do in Esports?
Li-Ning is a classic and popular sportswear brand in China. Unlike Nike, the Chinese sportswear brand has shown no interest in sponsoring esports tournaments at the time of writing and is hampered by Nike’s new deal with the LPL. In October of 2018, Li-Ning made its first step in esports by sponsoring Chinese esports organization Edward Gaming’s (EDG) League of Legends team. The deal ended after Nike and LPL announced their sponsorship. In the next couple of months following that deal, Li-Ning sponsored multiple esports teams including Newbee, QG Happy, Hero, YTG, RNG’s Dota 2 team, and even the South Korean esports organization Team Griffin, providing not only the team jerseys but also exclusive joint apparel and footwear lines.
Li-Ning also indirectly owns an LPL team called LNG Esports. In January, Viva China Sports acquired LPL team Snake Esports for “hundreds of millions of RMB,” according to what Li Qilin, CEO of Viva China Sports, said in an interview with Chongqing Evening News. In May, Snake Esports officially rebranded to LNG Esports. Viva China Sports is a sports subsidiary of Viva China Holdings Ltd., which is partly owned by Chinese entrepreneur and the founder of Li-Ning, Li Ning. It should be noted that Qilin is Li Ning’s nephew and an executive board member of Li-Ning Group.
Esports Apparel Competition: Nike vs. Li-Ning
In China’s sports industry, Nike and Li-Ning have both invested large amounts of capital. In 2018, Nike signed a ten-year sponsorship deal with China’s top soccer league Chinese Super League (CSL), which was valued at ¥3B RMB ($4.24M USD), including cash and equivalent products. In 2017, Li-Ning renewed a five-year sponsorship deal with China’s top basketball league, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) for ¥1B ($1.41M).
In esports, both companies have invested almost evenly. For Nike, according to Lanxiong Sports’ reporting, the apparel sponsorship between Nike and LPL is valued at ¥50M ($7.48M) a year, including cash and equivalent products. For Li-Ning, despite the financial terms of multiple undisclosed sponsorships and the acquisition of Snake Esports, the cost of building LNG Esports’ home venue is ¥30M ($4.36M), according to Tencent/Riot Games’ LoL China White Paper.
Due to the exclusive apparel sponsorship between Nike and LPL, Li-Ning had no rights to provide team jerseys for LNG Esports, or sponsor any LPL teams. In order to deal with this issue, Li-Ning changed its strategy to endorse EDG’s League of Legends players. In fact, the strategy of signing a deal with professional players is common in the NBA. For example, Nike is the exclusive apparel sponsor of NBA, but Adidas was able to sign a deal with NBA player James Harden to use his image and create co-branded shoes. Li-Ning was familiar with this strategy because it signed endorsement deals with NBA star Shaquille O’Neal in 2006, and a “lifetime” partnership deal with NBA star Dwyane Wade.
In addition, two days after Nike announced its “Nike X LPL” co-branded uniforms, Li-Ning and League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK) team Team Griffin unveiled co-branded team jerseys for the 2019 LoL World Championship. Unlike the “Nike X LPL” uniforms, the “Li-Ning X Griffin” team jersey added Griffin’s sponsor logos and parent company STILL8’s logo on its team t-shirt.
“中国选手” (Player) vs. Gamer
After Nike and LPL announced its first co-branded “Gamer” t-shirt, Li-Ning rapidly responded, by designing its esports apparel line under a general name: “中国选手” [English terms: Chinese Professional Player]. With all Li-Ning sponsored esports teams and players wearing the “中国选手” branded apparel line, Li-Ning has started to face Nike directly. A topic of “中国选手” vs. Gamer has widely been discussed in the Chinese esports industry. People in the industry started to notice that it is not just about the business competition between Li-Ning and Nike, but also reflects what those two companies’ understand about esports.
For Li-Ning, who owns esports organization LNG Esports and sponsors multiple esports organizations and players, the company is focusing on the players.
For Nike, which owns the largest and most recognizable sportswear brand in the world, the company more likely wants to investigate what kind of positive characteristics gamers have, and justify videogaming to the public in a way that is not characterized as a negative habit or seen as shameful.
In some ways, the two companies have expressed two different ways to think of what the core value of esports is: professional player (Li-Ning’s “Chinese Professional Player”) or gamer/consumer (Nike’s “Gamer”).
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