SportsPro Live: Alban Dechelotte on what brands are discovering about esports audiences

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Sports Pro caught up with Alban Dechelotte, Head of Sponsorship and Business Development for EU esports at Riot Games to reveal all about the League of Legends European Championships and how brands are discovering the esports audience.

League of Legends

Over the past decade, League of Legends has established itself as perhaps the most successful property in esports.

Riot Games’ multiplayer online battle arena title has moved to the core of the world’s leading professional video game contests since its release in late 2009. National and regional competitions feed into one of the most eye-catching and prestigious tournaments around: the League of Legends World Championships.

According to Riot, the 2018 edition of the Worlds attracted 99.6 million unique viewers online, as 24 teams played for total prize money of US$6.45 million. Winners Invictus Gaming took home just over US$2.4 million after beating Fnatic in front of a packed house at the Munhak Stadium in Incheon, South Korea.

Riot is now embarking on a new development in its regional competitions with the launch of the League of Legends European Championships – previously the League of Legends Championship Series EU. For Alban Dechelotte, the head of sponsorships and business development for EU esports at Riot Games, the rebrand is an opportunity to “create something unique that would represent this European promise of diversity and modernity”.

The ‘spring split’ of the inaugural LEC began on 18th January and features ten teams, including esports stalwarts like Fnatic and SK Gaming; German soccer club Schalke 04’s entry and Misfits, backed by the NBA’s Miami Heat; and newcomers Rogue, part-owned by rock band Imagine Dragons.

Dechelotte – whose previous experience includes a spell at the esports and gaming sponsorship division of the Coca Cola Company and ten years in traditional sport with Havas Sports & Entertainment – spoke to SportsPro on launch day at a facility built for the spring and summer splits on a broadcast compound in the south-east of Berlin. He discussed the commercial development of the series and the sport, the evolution of the esports model, and the lessons shared between esports and conventional sport.

Sports Pro: How does esports differ culturally and commercially in Europe from other centres around the world?

Alban Dechelotte: Commercially, Europe is fragmented in terms of culture. Basically, if you look at a market like China, Korea or the US – which are the three other super-mature and modern markets for esports – we have 14 languages and we probably have 18 advertiser markets. Our broadcasts are in six languages. So that’s the big difference.

Not only are the sponsors building their budgets on a national basis – there’s very few pan-European budgets on an advertiser level – but our broadcasts and the marketing offer we can offer them is also kind of a mix. In Germany, lots of Germans are watching our show in English. So if you want to reach the Germans, if you’re a brand that comes from Germany, you have to combine your efforts in the English feed and the German feed.

So that is a complexity in terms of building what is the best promise for advertisers that are predominantly nationally based, but we believe it’s also a strength because we’ve been able to create this ecosystem of the European league but also the national leagues and now the crossover between the two, and it’s creating so much talent and also stories that we believe if we create the right system, we can actually go further than a region that has only one language and one market.

Latin America League of Legends

SP: Beyond that, what’s the offer that a championship like this is making to brands? What are some of the assets that you’re able to create for sponsors that perhaps don’t exist in the world of sport?

AD: We believe we don’t differ that much. We bring exposure, we bring storylines, we bring connections and we bring emotions, and that’s kind of the definition of sponsorship, from my point of view. You don’t partner with a property, you connect with fans through a property.

We just have a very specific approach which is that we are global, digital, and we embrace a young audience. And that’s pretty much something that any property in the world would love to offer. We also have a very specific thing in terms of potential. Most other sports have a very narrow base of players and a very broad base of viewers. We have exactly the opposite: we have much more players than viewers.

So the potential for us is not to recruit into other sports or recruit from other video games – my mum plays Candy Crush and I don’t think we can really interest her in the sport of League of Legends tomorrow, despite the fact that she’s a really addicted video game player. But what is interesting is that just by focusing on our players, if we give them more reason to be interested in the sport, we can double or we can triple the viewership.

That’s something that the brands see. They see that the sport is super-young, that will enable them to engage an audience that with classical advertising and classical media they will struggle to reach, and that can triple in the years to come. That’s interesting.

SP: You’ve brought on board brands like Kia and Shell, which are very much non-endemic to esports. How has the profile of brands involved in a competition like this changed in the last few years, and how do you bring them into a community that might be sceptical of them?

AD: I don’t know if they’re going to be sceptical. I come from classical sports – I was the head of sponsorship for Coke. I’ve never seen, in football, fans celebrating a new partnership. They call out the monetisation, they disagree with the category, they think there are too many sponsors on the jersey already – I’ve seen that.

In esports, I got a thread on the forums celebrating the new sponsors that we signed for Europe. For them, it’s a sign of good health. It’s a sign that: ‘Finally, the brands understand that we are here.’ So the scepticism is about bad advertising. You know, the famous quote is like: ‘People don’t read ads, they read what interests them – and sometimes an ad.’ So that’s the only challenge, the only bother we have.

If we do a collaboration as a guardian of the community, we have to make sure of the quality of the execution, that the way the brand will embrace the community will be meaningful and respectful. If we do that, it’s a green pasture. The level of saturation of esports compared to any other sport on that scale is ridiculous. So we’re not looking to saturate it – we’ve got to be very mindful of the quantity so that we focus on the quality of our relationships – but definitely, we have only positive feedback from the fans so far.

We bring exposure, we bring storylines, we bring connections and we bring emotions, and that’s kind of the definition of sponsorship, from my point of view. You don’t partner with a property, you connect with fans through a property.

SP:You’ve brought in Lagardère as a partner to help with your commercial development. What will its role be?

AD: It’s a combination of experience and innovation. There’s the experience they bring in terms of building the marketing package, and feeling the exposure with experience, and creating these tiers that are readable for brands to connect with is very important. They also bring the networks of people that can connect with us across Europe, that if we had to do it centrally from Berlin it would take us, like, a century. That’s very valuable.

At the same time, they are inventing with us, and that’s very valuable. We have met a lot of agencies that were just trying to replicate what they had done in handball or what they had done in football or skiing. Lagardère came with a very humble approach of trying to understand, trying to build something that was meaningful, and making sure that whatever we present to brands is something that will fit with Riot Games as an organisation but also with the players.

InFinity’s players training during their time at the League of Legends World Championship 2018

SP: So this combination of innovation and experience is something that we decided to go for.

AD: More broadly, are you trying to learn and implement some of the things that you see in traditional sport and tailor that for esports? Or are you trying something new? Equally, are there things your partners and Lagardère can learn from this community?

I think there’s a lot that we can learn from sports. We are a ten-year-old sport, so in every single discipline, we are listening. We organised our first broadcast partner workshop, like Uefa has been doing for a hundred years. We have our governance people – the people that organise the trades of players, the fines, all the formats – attend all the governance summits from the IOC to learn how they do that in other sports.

Personally, I try to understand how the media rights or the sponsorship could be optimised. But at the same time, we are very different. First of all, we own the sports. There is no other sport that has this level of integration that we have. Brands that talk to us don’t talk to us as a property organiser. We create the sport every two weeks. Every two weeks, we change the sport in the way that they play it.

We organise a competition – for example, the LEC, which is like our European championship – but we also have people here that are makeup artists and hairdressers and casters as well as salespeople because we create the show every single week. So when we think about brand integration, we can give away digital goods from the game, we can associate them with the broadcasts, and we can also associate them with the events. All that is made end to end by Riot Games.

That’s something that, personally, I was working on the sponsorship side, I never found that in music, I never found it in sports, that level of integration. The possibility to go that deep is something very interesting.

SP: How much internal rivalry is there between your regional competitions and operations?

AD: There’s a huge competition when the sport starts. I want the European teams to win, my colleagues in North America are the same, and we just hope that EU will go further than NA every single time. But aside from that, we are very close.

Our relationship with Kia was also a discussion with our colleagues from Korea. We work a lot with China as an inspiration for us. I believe if you want to see what esports will be in ten years, just go to China now – that’s the level of modernity and maturity that they have in this country. And we share a lot of partnerships with North America, because a lot of the English international broadcasts are made together with our North American colleagues.

So, I would say, off the camera there is a lot of collaboration. On the Rift, a lot of competition.

Fnatic win EU LCS 2018 Summer Split
Credit: LoL Esports

SP: For Riot Games as a publisher, League of Legends is very well established as an esport but the space moves quickly. How do you respond to that and set a long-term strategy

AD: For us, we’ve demonstrated that we don’t consider League of Legends as a product. It’s not something that we put in a box and then we start working on the next game. It’s something that, since day one, we have invested in to become a live service.

The best illustration of that is, if you consider League of Legends from the foundation and League of Legends today, you’ll see a massive difference because every two weeks, we reinvent ourselves. We keep investing a lot of resources to make sure the game remains fresh. And that’s every two weeks that the players have a fresh experience of playing the game.

So we are committed to that. For us, League of Legends is the core. It’s a little bit like how for Disney, you would do an animation movie and then this movie has to work to create characters and storylines that will become a park, or a DVD, or toys. For us, the core is the game – we are a gamer-centric company – and then, because we have this laser-focused strategy, all we do is try to think what would be the additional experience.

We did sport as a first experience. You’ve probably heard that we started to do music and this music, because it was so targeted, we were super successful, too. We have been thinking about animation and movies – everything could come. We just announced a partnership with Marvel for comics. So I think it’s a vision we have where we have a core audience we want to service. It’s very easy for us to make the right call.

So when we think about brand integration, we can give away digital goods from the game, we can associate them with the broadcasts, and we can also associate them with the events. All that is made end to end by Riot Games.

SP: There have been a lot of new initiatives in esports over the past couple of years, from permanent infrastructure to new sport-backed competitions. How is the industry going to develop? Are we still in the trial and error phase?

AD: Absolutely. And I think that’s how you have a chance to find your way.

We’re going to do a lot of bets. We’re going to work with television, work with online platforms. We’re going to do events in Berlin, we’re also doing roadshows in major venues and now inviting cities to present to us when they want us to come. I think for all dimensions – sponsorship, merchandising, events – we’re going to fail and learn. And that’s the only way we are sure that we’re trying harder.

Hear more from Riot Games at SportsPro Live, which is taking place in London from 30th April to 1st May. To find out more, click here.