The founding of adidas and PUMA is one of corporate legend.
It starts with the Dasslers, two German brothers who owned a shoe factory in a small town named Herzogenaurach. For 30 years the brothers worked together creating sportswear. They found massive success at the 1936 Olympics but the looming war saw the factory turn to weapons – and the brothers split.
One brother was drafted while the other stayed home. By the time the war ended, their relationship had become untenable. In 1948 they split to found their own companies. Rudolf Dassler founded PUMA, Adolf Dassler founded adidas. Their intense rivalry split the town of Herzogenaurach into two camps. Both Dassler brothers passed in the 1970s and they are even buried on opposite sides of town.
That same decade, a third company popped up to challenge the german companies stranglehold on sportswear. Nike was the flashy new company from America and made a major entrance to the industry in the same way adidas and PUMA did decades prior – by innovating on the track.
Now, all three companies are the biggest athletic apparel brands in the world. The Dassler family is no longer the driving force behind PUMA or adidas, but the rivalry is still strong. Instead of family squabbles, it’s corporate competition to sign the top athletes, teams and leagues to apparel deals. Over the past year, that rivalry has expanded to esports.
Adidas was the first of these companies to have an apparel deal with a major esports organisation. FC Copenhagen, an adidas football club, partnered with Nordisk Film to create North in 2018. Adidas came along, and even if it didn’t know it yet, the runners were on their marks.
In 2019, the starting gun sounded. adidas created a sneaker for Team Vitality and signed deals with Lyon and Team Heretics. Nike sponsored the LPL with unique kits for every team. PUMA grabbed Cloud9 and created apparel lines bolstered by a flashy commercial.
During 2020, despite a pandemic, the pace has only quickened. Nike signed a deal with T1 Sports & Entertainment and SK Gaming. PUMA fired back by grabbing T1’s longtime LCK rivals Gen.G. So, if you’re keeping track at home: adidas has the most organisations, PUMA has the two largest, and Nike has the only league. Even with all these moves, the race resembles the tension of runners halfway through a 1500M sizing each other up while judging the perfect time for the final kick.
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“[Esports] is a natural extension of what we do,” said Matt Shaw, Sr. Strategist, Esports and Brand Innovation for PUMA. “We’re a sports company but really we are a culture company. To be a culture company, we have to love the things our consumers love. One of the things at the top of the list of what our consumers love is gaming and esports as a corollary.”
While competing for medals and league titles is still core to these brands competition, there are new playing fields now. When rapper Kanye West switched his Yeezy line from Nike to adidas, that was the biggest moment in the brand’s rivalry since LeBron James surprised adidas with an eleventh-hour Nike contract.
“The definition of the word ‘sports’ is constantly changing,” said Shaw. “Sports brands don’t just have to play in their lane anymore. The great thing about PUMA is that we are inextricably linked to music culture, entertainment culture and internet culture. As a sports brand we are able to wrap all those different cultural threads together and bring experiences to life for Gen.G.”
In esports, organisations are expanding into different areas of culture beyond competitive video games. 100 Thieves sells out streetwear in minutes while FaZe Clan is building a media empire. What it means to be an esports organisation is changing as time goes on.
To be clear, Gen.G is great at video games. Its LCK team is one of the world’s best, its PUBG team has won multiple championships, and even its VALORANT team is finding early success. Its Seoul Dynasty franchise in the Overwatch League and Shanghai Tigers franchise in the NBA 2K League give Gen.G presence in all the biggest esports markets. But beyond the games, Gen.G’s Team Bumble strides to empower women in gaming and the Elite Esports Academy provides a fully-integrated academic esports program.
“People have begun to accept gaming and esports more over the pandemic,” said Gina Chung Lee, VP of Brand for Gen.G. “Trends that were already happening have been vastly accelerated by everyone being stuck at home. A lot of this is going to stick, especially the convergence of gaming, esports, music and fashion. All of those worlds are colliding and a lot more unexpected collaborations are going to come soon as people see the overlap between different worlds.”
As culture brands themselves, the sportswear companies are recognising that overlap. With athletes streaming on Twitch and sports owners investing in organisations, the traditional sports worlds push into esports is undeniable. Still, we are in the early days of any sort of competition. The majority of esports organisations are making clothing in-house or are represented by endemic esports apparel companies like We Are Nations, not one of the big three sportswear brands.
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“There’s enough room to play in esports that the major brands haven’t really bumped into each other,” said Shaw. “It’s really important that there is an investment from a number of different sportswear brands here. One of the challenges that sportswear brands face is establishing esports as a legitimate sporting pastime [in the eyes of the general sports public].”
In the esports community, the question of ‘are esports sports?’ seems to have faded away slightly. At least personally, I haven’t had to answer the sigh-worthy question in months. But in general sports circles, that debate hasn’t ended. Shaw says its a question he still has to answer regularly when talking esports at PUMA. According to a study from Casumo, 46 percent of sports fans in America still don’t see esports as a real sport.
The sports vs. esports debate will likely never end. As esports has proven itself on its own merits, especially in a world threatened by coronavirus, much of the esports community has simply moved on.
Still, when looking at the wider sports ecosystem, having brands like Nike, adidas, and PUMA entering esports is a stamp of legitimacy from the cultural trendsetters of the sporting world. Right now, there is plenty of space for these companies to operate without butting heads, but there are only so many potential partners out there. If current trends hold true, the sportswear giants will soon add esports to the decades-long list of corporate battlegrounds.