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In late August, the Los Angeles Valiant hosted the third and final Overwatch League homestand weekend of the 2019 season at The Novo at LA Live, welcoming in nine teams—including city and state rivals the Los Angeles Gladiators and San Francisco Shock—for two days of matches. But the homestand came with very specific branding that set it apart from the others.
“It wasn’t just a Valiant homestand or an Overwatch homestand: it was Kit Kat Rivalry Weekend,” Immortals Gaming Club CEO Ari Segal told The Esports Observer. “One of the things that was really successful from our perspective was the ability to co-create an asset with a blue chip brand partner, and enable that partner to have entitlement rights to the event.
“For Kit Kat, not to be one of many, but to really take a lead entitlement position for a home weekend for a major esports event, owned and operated by a team—I don’t think that’s happened before in quite the same way as it did for Kit Kat for this weekend,” he continued. “That was very exciting, and I think very successful.”
The Dallas Fuel’s homestand, the first of the season, was called the Bud Light Homestand Weekend – Dallas. However, that branding was added the day before the weekend following the announcement of Bud Light’s overall league sponsorship. The Valiant had Kit Kat involved since the brand sponsored the team in May, and used the selection of opponents to further differentiate the event. But while the candy brand owned naming rights, the Valiant didn’t stop there with sponsors.
“We were able to apply a traditional sports best practice of sponsorship selling, where after selling the entitlement, we were able to add in a tier of founding partners including brands like Bud Light, Nitto Tire, and 1st Century Bank,” said Segal. “They’re well-known brands in premier sponsorship categories, giving those partners really elevated activation space, signage, media, and other assets, and creating the kind of sponsorship deliverable that I think will help esports continue to accelerate growth on the top line.”
Segal hails from the world of traditional sports, and served as chief operating officer of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes from 2016-17 before joining Immortals as president and COO (now CEO). Before that, he was president of business operations for the minor league San Diego Gulls hockey organization, and he recounted a story in which the team didn’t correctly moderate the humidity in the venue for the first game of the season. Fog quickly covered the ice, and the game had to be stopped as they sorted out a solution.
“What surprised me was that so little went wrong,” he said about Kit Kat Rivalry Weekend. “I was expecting something like that. I don’t know what the equivalent is of fog in gaming, but I was expecting something to go wrong. It always does. But it really didn’t.
“From an execution perspective, our LA Valiant team, the team at AEG and The Novo, and our partners at Activision Blizzard all worked together to seamlessly execute an event that was—from end to end—as good or better as any event that you could attend, be it a sporting event, a movie, and awards show, musical theatre, or anything else,” he continued. “Things worked on time, there were sufficient people to provide necessary hospitality and service, and fans got what they wanted when they expected it. Those are little details that people tend to take for granted, but they make all the difference for a customer experience. That’s what keeps people coming back.”
The Valiant will return to The Novo for both of its homestand weekends in 2020, on April 18-19 and Aug. 8-9. Asked where he sees room for improvement over this year’s event, Segal said that he believes that they can enhance the food and beverage experience for attendees, and will be working with AEG and other teams in the league to “close that gap very quickly” compared to other live entertainment experiences. He also suggested that packing in four matches per day during the homestand created challenges.
“If I could do things differently knowing what I do now—it was a really long day. We always have in our minds this boxing or UFC-style point of view, which is that the main event should be the last event and everything should crescendo at the end,” he said. “But I think if I could do it over, perhaps energy peaked maybe during the third game rather than the fourth game; because people were there at 10:30 a.m. on line, and we didn’t go onstage the first day until 7:30 p.m. That is a marathon, not a sprint. So I would narrow the number of matches, and I would really think hard about when doors are opening, and how long after do I want our team to play.”
Segal said that putting on these events is a constant evolution. Even with the first event, the team already took cues from the Dallas Fuel and Atlanta Reign homestands in 2019 and tried to learn from what those teams had done.
“This is a process. It’s fluid. We took a lot of lessons from Dallas and Atlanta, and applied them even this year to our event,” said Segal. “I think Dallas deserves a ton of credit for the scale and scope, and just sheer magnitude of its event. Atlanta deserves a ton of credit for building a homestand weekend in a market where this is really their first season, so less lead time to build a fanbase, and doing it in a theatre setup rather than an in-the-round. We tried to take both of those things, to do something big and do something in a theatre, but really lean in as much as possible to live fan activations.”
One fan activation was pulled from the Valiant’s own original YouTube content offerings. The team’s “Gamer Snacks” series sees two of the Valiant players humorously try to create meals such as French toast or mac and cheese, and the organization offered some of those recipes onsite for fans to purchase. “It was this really nice combination of digital and in-real-life,” said Segal, “It was something that really connected the fan experience from the one you had week-to-week during the season, to come out to this tentpole, premier event and get to extend that experience even further.”
Segal said that avoiding dead space during each day was key, especially with the extended schedule of matches. The Valiant also had stations where fans could make their own trading cards, and put a digital caricature of their face onto an Overwatch hero. “Those kinds of things make the product family-friendly, and diversifying those experiences across multiple weekends gives people an incentive to keep coming back,” he said. “I think that’s why we’ve sold over 100 season tickets already for next season. We’ll continue to do those things.”
Kit Kat Rivalry Weekend had a number of onsite brand activations, as well, with Kit Kat handing out samples of a new candy bar before it was released in stores. The company also sponsored Kit Kat Splash Tanks that dunked a supporter of the losing Overwatch League team in water… but awarded him or her a year of free candy, and also donated to the Valiant’s official non-profit partner, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Bud Light had a VIP lounge onsite, and both 1st Century Bank and Nitto Tire activated as well.
“I’m a big believer in multiplatform activation. In other words, I don’t think the best sponsorship activation is only one thing. Instead, it’s several things that work together,” said Segal. “For example, our Junkertown [Overwatch map] in-real-life activation with Nitto Tire from our Cali Cup and community block party last year worked really well, because we had something that was in-real-life that fans can come and experience, which really connected them to each other, and to the game and to our team. That was complemented by some interesting and unique digital content, and then what really amounts to media placement.”
“It’s really, really deep live engagement and activation complemented by very engaging, bespoke, on-brand digital content, and then amplified through media,” he added. “With something like that, you’re hitting a lot of people in a lot of different ways. That seems to create the conditions for success.”
Segal said that integrating brands within the event helps build awareness within the fan base, and that it’s not necessarily limited to those people who attended in person. Seeing the logo on the broadcasts, he said, still generates affinity and the association that these specific brands are enabling these types of events.
“You’re reinforcing the brand awareness of the entity that helped create that added value to the experience. In other words, when a fan saw the Nitto Tire logo on our broadcast, it wasn’t just a random tire company. Instead, it was: ‘Oh yeah, that tire company created this amazing live experience that either I had, or my friend had, or I saw other people having through social media or online,’” said Segal. “That leads to a significant uptick in brand affinity, willingness to purchase, and all of those other metrics that sponsors are looking for while at the same time creating a really positive experience for fans rather than a bitter, sour, overtly commercial sensation.”
Building the Brand
Ultimately, Segal sees activations as more than just ways to get brands involved in live events. It’s also a way to amplify the experience for fans and create the added value that might convince them to attend rather than watch at home. Those added elements not only enrich the fan experience, but then also benefit the team, sponsors, and league in both the short and long term.
“Something we took a lot of pride in was raising the bar on live event activations,” he said. “Giving fans a reason to get off the couch and come to a venue, to share a live competitive gaming experience with their friends and community, and ensuring that the value of that live experience exceeded the value of any other available experience—be it on your phone, on your couch, in front of your PC, or frankly even at Blizzard Arena. I think we were able to achieve that.
“That’s how you start to build your brand. The people who were at Kit Kat Rivalry Weekend, the people who watched Kit Kat Rivalry Weekend—they didn’t see Overwatch League,” he added. “They saw the LA Valiant brand of Overwatch League, and that will continue to evolve into next season.”
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