“Twitch...it’s like the cable of the Internet,” explains Dustin Beck, addressing a massive audience of business people scratching away on their notepads. He’s at the Digital-Life-Design conference in Germany, and his panel is all about business strategies in the gaming ecosystem. Joining him on stage is Matt Wolf, The Coca-Cola Company's head of gaming. Why? Because instead of sponsoring the NBA, NFL, or any other major traditional sporting event in 2014, Coke has decided to throw its weight behind the eSports community. Specifically, League of Legends.
Coke’s sponsorship of League technically started last October, but with the recent ignition of LoL's Season 4 ladder and the LCS playoffs, it’s finally beginning to register with everyone what that actually means. The skinny: Coke finds it worthy to invest resources into the growing phenomenon that is eSports. They’re not the first to do this though, having been beaten to the punch by people like...the US Government. Last year, the US Visa Bureau embraced professional gamers, grouping them in with the stipulation that non-US citizen professional athletes can live and play in the US. And while we can all be excited that these giant powers are finally lifting up the video game community, we have to remember that it’s in the interest of profits, not altruism. But that’s actually great, because it means more for the future of eSports than what initially is obvious on the surface level.
Matt Wolf helps us put things in perspective. “The Super Bowl is a massively viewed event with 111+ million viewers every time it happens,” Wolf said at his Serious Play panel. “But when you start to layer on a gender and certain age split that we're very interested in, [the numbers] come pretty far down.” See, Coke isn’t about reaching the most people; it's about reaching their demographic. And after Coke boiled down all the viewers of the average sporting event and reduced them down to a count of Someone Who Would Buy A Coke Product, it arrived at a total far lower than what it had hoped for.
In comes League of Legends, which is like the safe haven for the slippery demographic that Coke craves so much. But check out what Coke's sponsoring: not LCS, or Worlds, or Season 4 in general. It's sponsoring the Challenger Series. "Most of us, when we were young, had aspirations of being pro at something,” Wolf tells the audience. “We wanted to work with Riot and give that opportunity to the playerbase. The idea is that we're going to give an opportunity for amateur players to become pro." Riot Games should be jumping for joy. It's always had trouble getting the average LoL fan to get invested in amateur teams, and now in comes one of the most powerful brands of the century is giving them a helping hand. Baseball has the minor leagues, the NFL has college football, and now the eSport League of Legends has a legitimate pool of talent to pull from for their professional circuit. As a fan, I'm incredibly excited--it’s like I'm getting to spectate twice the professional matches and tournaments.
Know who should be really excited? The rest of the world, because due to Coke they’re finally going to get a glimpse of this new era of eSports. Think about it like this: in 2013, the NBA finals had an audience of 18 million people, while viewership for League of Legends' Season 3 Worlds event totaled 32 million. But go right now to the grocery store and ask the first 50 people you run into if they’re heard of either the NBA or LoL. Chances are, everyone will know the former, while the latter will leave older folk scratching their heads. League of Legends is huge, absolutely giant, yet nobody outside its playerbase seem to be aware that it exists. But with Coke making a huge financial investment in League, everyday people will start to take notice. Newspapers will pick up the story, and sooner or later your dad will be asking you if Bitcoin will be a viable currency in 20 years (no joke, just happened).
So get excited, because now more than ever, eSports are here to stay. Maybe for the next couple of days, you can sit your family down and have them watch the LCS with you. It’s finally our turn to make them sit for hours, watching something that they barely understand while we shout random things at the TV.