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EA Sports, Pizza Hut and esports’ evolving sponsorship potential

Last year, EA Sports and Pizza Hut made headlines with the first ever naming rights deal for a virtual stadium. Now, following esports’ rise during lockdown, SportsPro asks where the Madden partnership can go in its second season and what is next for gaming sponsorship post-Covid.

22 October 2020 Ed Dixon

“I look back at the first year of our partnership as a defining moment in football history,” declares EA Sports’ Alex Nuñez, when asked by SportsPro to reflect on the video game developer’s first full season working with Pizza Hut.

Nuñez, the partnerships and advertising lead for Madden, EA Sports’ licensed National Football League (NFL) title, was of course referring to the pizza chain securing naming rights to a virtual football stadium back in July 2019 – becoming the first brand to do so.

That deal, followed by League of Legends (LoL) releasing in-game inventory for its key partners, further highlighted the appeal for global companies within the competitive gaming space.

Granted, Pizza Hut’s existing deal with the NFL made the jump to esports, specifically the Madden NFL 20 Championship Series, a comparatively easy one. But the move showed the increasing desire for brands to reach millennial and Gen Z fanbases – something gaming is not short of.

So, if last year’s partnership was about applying traditional sponsorship means – in this case naming rights – across a new environment, what is now in store for Madden and Pizza Hut?

“There was that immediate hook when we formalised the idea behind the first ever virtual stadium rights deal and we felt the immediate impact of that,” Nuñez continues. “But I think what was equally exciting were the ways we could expand a virtual stadium year-over-year without real world limitations on design and development. It was always our vision to evolve Pizza Hut Stadium into the bigger and bolder venue that we're playing in this season.”

Indeed, big seems to be better when it comes to further blurring the lines between the real-life NFL and its virtual counterpart. For this campaign, the Pizza Hut Stadium will be the largest professional arena in Madden history, boasting more lifelike features, including a branded entrance, to add to the immersive experience. It may be the closest thing the NFL gets to a sell-out game this season.  

Accessibility to the stadium has also been dialled up. Previously only available for the elite Championship Series, all players in the latest Madden NFL 21 title can now compete in the venue through the Madden Ultimate Team mode. It is perhaps a mark of gaming’s fervent consumer base that competing in the same stadium as their esports heroes now holds the same weight for gamers as it would a Packers fan stepping out onto Lambeau Field.

“By rolling out Pizza Hut Stadium into Madden Ultimate Team, we're able to skyrocket the engagement inside the venue,” explains Nuñez. “But, most importantly, we are able to give the broader player base the opportunity to compete where the professionals play.”

“The beautiful thing about Madden and simulation football is the experience to do things in a virtual world that you're otherwise not able to do in real life. I'm unable to play for the Jets and I'm also not able to compete at the professional tier of this game. But I would still love that opportunity to feel what it means to participate on that biggest stage and in a game so many players love. It's an opportunity we’re now able to provide to a larger Madden audience.”

The updated stadium now includes a branded entrance to help improve the immersive experience

Sports simulators find themselves in the challenging position of being continually compared to their real-life equivalents. For leading esports titles such as LoL or Fortnite, their fictional setting affords far more leeway, and creative scope, when it comes to gameplay. Madden, meanwhile, is expected to achieve enhanced levels of realism year after year, or even update after update. If anything, however, its expanded collaboration with Pizza Hut only adds to the authenticity thanks to the NFL’s vast array of real-life sponsors.

“We’ve been able to reach fans in more dynamic and meaningful ways through the gaming experience that we wouldn’t be able to via more traditional advertising and marketing channels,” says Steven Quach, Pizza Hut’s senior director of media and performance marketing.

“Year one was all about connecting with competitive gamers and the fans who watched. In year two, we’re casting a wider net in partnership with EA, extending Pizza Hut Stadium’s presence to Madden NFL 21 so that all gamers – both competitive and casual – will be able to play in our stadium, too. This means we’ll be able to directly connect with more than 50 million Madden gamers.”

As well as Pizza Hut opening itself up to an even larger audience, the NFL is likewise positioning itself to reap the rewards on the fan front. According to MarketWatch, the average NFL game viewer is 47-years-old, a whole decade behind the comparatively spritely 37-years-old for the National Basketball Association (NBA). Research and consulting company Nielsen, on the other hand, puts the average age of an esports fan at 26-years-old.

If Madden is providing an opening for greater brand precedence, without detrimentally affecting the gaming experience, then so too it is for plucking the next generation of NFL supporters.

“From our perspective, the audience is key for the NFL, as well as Pizza Hut, and for any brand that comes in. We have that audience,” says Vida Mylson, EA Sports’ senior director of brand partnerships. “There's a way we can build upon what story they're already sharing in that ecosystem and cultivate it in a way where it's recognisable and player-first and meets all the requirements of a very young, intelligent audience in the gaming world.

“A huge priority for the NFL, brand partners and us is building upon the pillars that they're already targeting; they're targeting an older audience through their normal channels and for us it's allowing them to have access to another audience and opening up the floodgates to the NFL world in a cool and innovative way.”

Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is one of several NFL players involved with gaming

That reliance from traditional sports on competitive gaming to reach fans, never mind young ones, exploded during lockdown as the pandemic wiped out the sporting calendar. Athletes from football to Formula One fired up their consoles as virtual matchups took centre stage before the big leagues returned.

It meant the normalisation of esports within the wider sports sector was brought forward considerably, something the NFL, and other leagues, will look to lean on with their athletes to usher in new followers through the gaming gateway. It’s a journey brands will surely want to be a part of.

“We've got youth playing FIFA, or Madden, or NBA 2K and they're learning about players, they're learning about teams all through the lens of the gaming world. That’s their initial spark now in terms of progression into the real [sports] world,” notes Mylson. “It's pretty fascinating to watch how they've accelerated that process in sports through the lens of gaming for that. It’s also definitely a place where a brand can come in and feel like they're getting an audience outside of who they're already reaching.”

All Madden players can now access the Pizza Hut Stadium

The pressure for brands operating within the sports space to extract maximum returns shows no signs of relenting either as the world continues to feel the economic consequences of Covid-19. Hardly helping that cause lately were abridged seasons for leagues around the globe suffering fixture clashes. Notably, this contributed to what has been described as the lowest-rated NBA finals series on record after 5.6 million viewers tuned in to watch game six on ABC. The audience figure was equivalent to a 2.1 rating in the 18 to 49 age bracket but marked a startling drop compared to game six of last year’s finals, which hit 18.34 million viewers.

In contrast, for example, Riot Games’ 2020 LoL World Championship has seen average viewership for its play-in stage during September hit 714,000, up 35 per cent compared to the opening period for 2019, according to Esports Charts – still way behind the NBA but a firm indication competitive gaming is continuing on an upward trajectory.

There's so much diversity in IP across gaming and esports that's reaching various demographics. Most brands should feel confident that there's a natural home for them. 

EA Sports’ Alex Nuñez

Considering the likes of Mastercard and Alienware are taking up the in-game branding opportunities offered by LoL developer Riot Games during its esports broadcasts, could more brands eager for younger consumers turn to gaming titles in the quest for greater value? 

“There's so much diversity in IP across gaming and esports that's reaching various demographics. Most brands should feel confident that there's a natural home for them,” says Nuñez. “From a Madden perspective, we want to create a similar source of comfort for brands through an expanded offering and inventory with entry points across the franchise.

“What it gives us is an opportunity, when we're thinking about it from a broader inventory perspective, where we can expand and evolve our partnerships to create new diverse cross-platform brand experiences that are really hitting every single Madden player and every type of fan of the franchise.

“It allows us to create unique and different partnerships that look different but retain a similar essence to the connection of a brand to football, to the NFL, and to us.”

The 2020 League of Legends World Championship is enjoying strong viewing figures once again

It is a sentiment echoed by Quach as Pizza Hut kicks off its second Madden season.

“Esports is super dynamic by nature, so it gives our brand the opportunity to enhance the game experience for fans in a relevant way and engage with them in real-time while they’re watching or playing,” he says.

“The meteoric rise we’ve seen in gaming over recent years is unprecedented, and in 2020 I think you could attribute a lot of that growth to the pandemic with people quarantining at home looking for easy ways to occupy time. We’re seeing a similar situation with the Pizza Hut business – more families eating together at home, ordering delivery or carryout. The crux of both is convenience combined with a relevant offering.

“Esports creates the opportunity for brands to extend their reach to new audiences and, if done right, connect in a really authentic and natural way.”

It all begs the question of where gaming partnerships go next in a post-Covid world. As was the case for traditional sports when sponsorship changed from relative novelty to commercial cornerstone, companies will compete tooth and nail for supremacy. In decades past, whoever forked out the most for TV advertising, typically won. Now, as young consumers’ habits fragment, and esports’ influence expediates, smart spending in burgeoning areas able to unite the next wave of fans will go a long way to sealing victory.

EA Sports will evolve its content to reach more audiences

“We’re looking to evolve our content so it’s not just for esports competitions but is instead more entertainment driven, meaning we can reach different audiences,” Nuñez concludes. 

“As we're seeing with the Madden Championship Series right now, it's not just the one per cent of Madden players; we have NFL players competing on this Madden stage, celebrities. We want to be a platform that can host content that is interesting and exciting for any sort of fan and that will be key to our growth. We want to make sure our partnerships are a reflection of that.

“Diverse evolution allows us to be innovative and different but also really unique to the Madden brand and the brands of our partners in the NFL.”

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