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Last September, Mastercard marked its first foray into esports with the announcement of a multi-year global partnership with Riot Games to sponsor key annual League of Legends events: the Mid-Season Invitational, All-Star Event, and World Championship. It was reported to be Riot Games’ largest-ever partnership to date, and Mastercard did much more than affix its logo to the events.
The company activated around the 2018 World Championship in Seoul, South Korea, erecting a “Mastercard Nexus” pop-up location that allowed fans in the Gangnam neighborhood to meet pro players, attend panel discussions, compete in League of Legends showdowns, and play around with an augmented reality experience. For Mastercard, esports represented a promising new market—and according to Cheryl Guerin, executive vice president of marketing and communications for North America, it has been a positive alignment so far.
“We were really excited to get into this space,” she told The Esports Observer in an interview this week. “You’ll have seen Mastercard over the years involved with many sports. We’re very focused on getting people focused on their passions, and we want our cardholders engaged with their passions. We recognized the importance of what was going on with esports: the growth that was happening, and the engagement and excitement around esports. We wanted to get engaged, and that was our first foray into this space.
“What I can tell you is we’ve seen terrific engagement, and it’s doing what we had hoped it would do,” Guerin continued. “We’re connecting with a new audience, and it’s a fantastic platform and a really engaged fan base.”
Today, the companies announced the next step in that partnership: in addition to its global sponsorship of those events, Mastercard is now a sponsor of the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) in North America. The brand is the exclusive financial services partner of the league, and will activate onsite at this weekend’s LCS Summer Finals in Detroit, where Mastercard will provide exclusive benefits to cardholders.
Additionally, Mastercard and Riot Games have collaborated on an original video content series called “Together Start Something Priceless.” The series will focus on League of Legends players who are positively impacting the community, with the first focused on retired pro Stephen “Snoopeh” Ellis and his post-career efforts to support other professional players. The series is not exclusive to North America, but it will debut first in this market.
According to Guerin, the global sponsorship was a first step for the company. Upon further analysis, Mastercard also saw the potential to pair its brand with events within the North American market, and provide experiences for cardholders along with content for all LCS fans.
“As we evaluated the opportunity in North America, we wanted to make sure we had a number of events that were in this region that cardholders can actually access and experience, so we took the next step,” she said. “We tend to look at how we activate [all] sides: global, national, and local. How do we get the full engagement of the fans? And frankly, how do we get the fans closer to the games and the experiences themselves?”
Making a Connection
Branded content has become a big draw for partners, especially non-endemic sponsors, as it provides a way to connect brands with esports in a way that goes beyond simply slapping a logo onto a jersey or broadcast. Mastercard saw it as an opportunity to really reach esports-savvy viewers by helping to tell stories that can resonate with this community.
“The Mastercard brand is known worldwide, and certainly we want brand presence with this audience. But most important is that we fit in the most authentic and engaging way with the audience,” said Guerin. “Having a content series, and particularly one that was built by the community themselves—it was crowdsourced and features a number of the truly priceless stories that we’ve heard along our journey of this partnership, from the fans who are truly passionate about esports. Being able to feature them is much more authentic than only featuring our logo. It’s really important that we do this: that we bubble up priceless stories, and inspire others that are passionate about esports.”
Matt Archambault, North American head of partnerships and business development for Riot Games, told The Esports Observer that he believes that branded content makes for a more organic connection with viewers, and provides better brand engagement.
“As we look for qualified partners with the strategy that we have for LCS, it’s really about delivering and defining where those partners are going to invest into the space, and to then work with us to develop a great experience not only for their end-user but also for our fans and our community,” said Archambault. “I think as we start to talk about that, just running a logo slap or a commercial spot: that’s great, and it’s a good jumping-off point for some brands that are non-endemic. But where we’ve really seen the higher levels of engagement with the community is when we start to dig into these content pieces.
“Being able to develop a storyline, being able to get into storytelling—that’s what really drives and provides more value back to the community,” he continued. “At the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to do: create an experience and create a partnership that is going to give value not only just to that brand, but also back to the community, and seeing things in a unique manner that they might not have been exposed to before. That’s really what we’re trying to define here.”
For Archambault, extending Mastercard’s League of Legends sponsorship into the LCS brings multiple potential benefits. He said that the company was especially interested in lending its experience and perspective regarding the opening ceremony of the LCS Summer Finals, which will be the first such LCS event with a live band during the kick-off. Archambault also pointed to Mastercard’s myriad activations since becoming a global partner of Riot Games.
“What they did by coming onboard from a global activation standpoint last year with us was amazing,” he said. “They went fully into the relationship and were completely into it.
“[This partnership] was another way for us to say: What you’ve done on a global scale, obviously the global reach for MSI, All-Stars, and Worlds, is effectively unsurpassed. But now we’re delivering this connective tissue and touchpoints to a North American audience, and really finding a way to level up our fan base and fan experience—both for Mastercard cardholders and also delivering moments,” added Archambault. “I think we’ve been able to identify unique elements, and then we’ve been able to, from there, transcribe those into what’s going to work specifically for our league, and beyond that, the community that we represent here in North America.”
Editor’s note: Interviews conducted by Trent Murray
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