American Express is the first blue chip company to enter the eSports arena with sponsorship of the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) and a new Riot Games credit card. Electronic Sports, or eSports, has been riding the success of Riot Games’ League of Legends over the past few years. Thanks in part to the explosion of live streaming through Twitch and the global appetite to watch pro gamers compete, and even practice, playing the world’s number one game, Riot has attracted a major sponsor in American Express. And more are sure to follow as the company has over 32 million active players.
For those who haven’t been following eSports, millions of gamers from around the globe tune in to watch big events like the recent LCS North American Regionals at PAX Prime and European Regionals at Gamescom. The winners from those events will compete for $2 million in cash at the LCS Season 3 World Championship in Los Angeles on October 4. Riot sold out 10,000 seats at the Staples Center in an hour and six minutes, and fans are already scalping tickets online as if it was a Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup Final game.
“From an engagement perspective, Riot Games is a great partner because League of Legends isn’t just about these huge live events, it’s also about the time spent playing the game and watching others playing the game for research and strategies,” said Ian Swanson, vice president of Enterprise Growth at American Express. “We want to reach the male millennial audience on a consistent basis. These millions of gamers aren’t just watching things live on Twitch, but many times afterward to learn from the pros. And they’re also actively talking about it.”
Swanson comes from the video game industry. He founded in-game payment and optimization company Sometrics, which was acquired by AmEx in September 2011. As a result, he has watched League of Legends grow in size and scale and seen the engagement levels of 18 to 24 year old male gamers rise along with the game’s eSports success.
Swanson said the engagement for League of Legends is phenomenal. Players will spend three or four hours playing the game and then another five hours strategizing on how to play better. The American Express Serve Prepaid Account League of Legends card extends that reach and allows players to connect to the game by earning Riot Points through everyday purchases. The U.S. Government has also kept an eye on eSports. Riot Games worked with the State Department to allow League of Legends eSports players from other countries to receive the same P-1A visa status as other sports’ athletes. Dustin Beck, vice president of eSports at Riot, said the biggest winners with this achievement are the athletes playing League of Legends because it’s now a viable career path for players to pursue their dreams and passions.
“It further legitimizes eSports,” said Swanson. “It certainly helps that our government is aware that these players are professional athletes just like baseball or football players. From a marketing perspective, our core focus was on demographics, reach and scale, and Riot checked the boxes on each.”
In addition to the prepaid card, American Express is a sponsor of LCS and the upcoming World Championship at Staples Center.
“American Express is also a US Open sponsor, what this means for eSports is that we’re stepping up and saying this is no longer niche,” explained Swanson. “This is a large audience that’s strategic to our goals as a company to reach. Just as you see American Express at the US Open or LA Kings hockey games at the Staples Center, you’ll see us at LCS.”
Swanson added that the Staples Center is iconic for championships for tier one sports, and to have eSports there and gamers playing underneath the banners and jerseys of the Kings, Lakers and Clippers shows that they’re legitimate.
“We showed a video from the LCS Season 2 championship game at USC Galen Center to a bunch of execs at American Express and they were shocked at the fans and how excited they were and how proud the athletes were when they won,” said Swanson. “We told them that Riot would sell out Staples Center in a day, and then we were able to go back and tell them they sold out in an hour, so it was clear we made the right choice.”
Beck said having AmEx on board breaks the traditional mode gamer categories that have been sponsors of eSports over the last decade. He said this deal also makes sense for players because it’s a value-add experience.
“We’re careful about the sponsors we do work with and AmEx has that quality bar and they can deliver on that,” said Beck. “These cards fill a lot of needs and connect to the game world with champions from the game. Moving forward, whether it’s team specific or player specific cards, we haven’t figured that out yet.”
Having a “AAA” blue chip sponsor will likely open more doors for Season 4, especially once footage spreads of a sold out Staples Center hosting a video game tournament.
“Our participation will hopefully help legitimize eSports and help bring in other brands and other sponsors,” said Swanson. “The real testament goes to the players and quality of the game Riot has produced. We’re almost on the ground floor of eSports. In the next two to five years this thing is going to be much bigger than it is. And it’s already tens of millions of people watching around the world.”
Beck admits that the company is leaps and bounds ahead of where they thought they’d be in the eSports arena.
“All we can do is guarantee fans we have a focus on delivering high-quality, engaging experiences and that’s our first and foremost attribute,” said Beck. “We’re going to start doing more global experiences with fans. We have five distinct leagues in China, Korea, Southeast Asia, Europe, North America and we just launched in countries like Brazil, Russia and Turkey. It’s a unique situation where we have a global sport that is tough to benchmark outside of any sport except maybe FIFA or the Olympics.”
And it’s also unique in that most mainstream companies, which are struggling to connect with millennials, have yet to capitalize on this gaming audience. American Express is the first, but certainly won’t be the last.