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Blurring the lines: EA Sports’ Pizza Hut virtual stadium and the new frontier for sponsorship

Pizza Hut’s historic agreement with EA Sports saw it become the first brand to secure naming rights to a virtual football stadium. With esports creating an expanded universe of inventory, SportsPro looks at what it means for the future of sponsorship.

30 Sep 2019 Ed Dixon

It has hardly come as a shock that the chatter around all things commercial with the National Football League (NFL) recently has been dominated by the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers stadium naming rights mega deal with Social Finance (SoFi).

The reported US$600 million, 20-year agreement for the San Francisco-based brand to lend its name to Inglewood’s new 70,000-seater venue stands as a record naming rights deal for a sports stadium. It only highlighted the NFL as a hotbed for sponsorship supremacy.

But tucked away in the virtual world of football lay a partnership that could have a longer lasting impact on sponsorship as we know it. First announced at the end of July, global restaurant chain Pizza Hut had quietly made history as the first brand to bag naming rights to a virtual football stadium, securing a deal with EA Sports for the Madden NFL 20 Championship Series.

The virtual stadium has a capacity of 71,000 and even features 381 luxury suites to help add to the realism

Esports sponsorship deals are nothing new, but for an industry that is set to post revenues of US$2.96 billion by 2022, according to Goldman Sachs, this tie-up has truly shown the sector is playing in the big leagues. It was as much a validation of esports as an enticing commercial venture as it was a trailblazer in the sports industry as a whole for attracting new fans. The shackles were off.

“The NFL and Pizza Hut have partnered since 2018 and with that there’s a natural progression of finding a new way to reach a really unique audience in the gaming space,” explains Vida Mylson, senior director of global brand partnerships at EA Sports. “The NFL is trying to reach young males playing Madden, and our discussions were about reaching that new audience.”

The Madden Championship Series has proven a hit for EA Sports. The most recent event, the Madden NFL 20 Classic held from 30th August to 1st September, saw players descend on North America’s largest esports-dedicated facility, Esports Stadium Arlington. Boasting the largest competitor pool in the history of the event, it was an ideal time for the Pizza Hut Stadium to make its debut as the venue for the in-game encounters.

“Virtual stadium rights were a natural but very big step that we wanted to roll out for this season,” reveals Alex Nuñez, esports sponsorship lead at EA Sports. “We brought it to Pizza Hut as a potential solution for working together which made sense for our partnership between both sides.”

The stadium made its debut for the Madden NFL 20 Classic

Since partnering with the NFL in 2018, Pizza Hut’s inaugural season as official pizza sponsor featured national advertisements, NFL-themed uniforms and packing, and the launch of the brand’s new digital platform, Game Plan, part of its Hut Rewards loyalty program. Extensive, yes, but hardly groundbreaking for a sport laden with commercial tie-ins.

Seeing as naming rights first caused a stir when baseball’s St Louis Cardinals opened the 1954 season in the Busch Stadium, so named after American brewery Anheuser-Busch, it seemed obvious decades later it would do the same in esports.

“Virtual stadium rights are a simple but elegant concept that turned out to be quite disruptive in the world of esports. We are excited to bring it into this world and elevate this whole space which continues to grow,” says Nuñez.

Given its reception, the move could open up a potential goldmine of naming rights deals in the sector as brands look for added value in their esports investments. There has been no shortage of those eager to dive in, but many still are not sure what to make of it when looking at bang for their buck. By blurring the lines between traditional sports and esports, will a template emerge for companies to follow?

It is clear that by giving Madden its own branded stadium, EA Sports is looking to further mirror the experience a player, and viewers, would get at an actual NFL venue. There is also the mirroring of sponsorship opportunities in the real world of sport; what works there is now a viable option in esports.

Even a few years ago though, Pizza Hut’s stadium deal would have been unheard of. But, as reflected by the NFL targeting young Madden gamers, it is a pathway for people to engage with sports and, consequently, its affiliates. The burgeoning behemoth that is esports may still be dwarfed by major sports properties, but organisers and brands will not miss the opportunity to entice gamers to their side. 

But how exactly? The so often overused buzzword ‘innovation’ is banded around frequently in the sports industry. Admittedly, it is for good reason as companies search for ways to stay ahead of the ever-lengthening curve when appealing to consumers. A major selling point for esports is being conducive for the ‘I’ word, as it looks to push boundaries in everything from streaming to sponsorship. Firms want to be part of that journey.

“Brands are trying to find a unique way to create exciting messaging and exposure in these environments,” says Mylson. “More and more are going to come in asking for really innovative ways to allow for their brand pillars to come to life. We’ll be there with them understanding what those goals and objectives are to create opportunities for them.”

It’s important that the innovation, the ideas and the brands coming to life within the environments are bringing value to the audience and the players.

Aside from whether this will set a new trend in virtual stadium naming rights, another big question is where do esports and sponsors go from here as they aim to push the envelope?

“It’s important that the innovation, the ideas and the brands coming to life within the environments are bringing value to the audience and the players,” Mylson continues.

Specific in-game player branding on shirts is off the table, in sports simulation games anyway, as it would stray from the goal of making the experience as lifelike as possible. With elite competitions such as the Super Bowl synonymous with the sense of occasion, expect sponsors to find new ways to look for pomp and ceremony with future endorsement deals.

“We had a dedicated strategy for revealing the Pizza Hut Stadium in advance of the the Madden NFL 20 Classic to generate as much buzz and excitement around the visuals and what the stadium would look like,” notes Nuñez.

“There was a totally different energy for players and fans when they knew they were going to be seeing this brand-new stadium built for them. It almost felt like a video from a college football locker room reveal. It was a sign it was a brand-new year and a big year all across the board for competitive Madden.”

The partnership could be the benchmark for future naming rights deals in esports

With the partnership only confirming the Madden Championship Series as a valuable NFL property, will EA Sports follow it up with a milestone deal for another of its major properties such as FIFA?

“We challenge ourselves to continue to innovate our sponsorship offering. The Pizza Hut Stadium is a great opportunity for us to forge new Madden memories and traditions inside it. We’ll see where we go from there,” says Nuñez.

“I would say anything is possible,” adds Mylson.

Considering it is synonymous with the new, it seems a touch ironic esports would look to the old formula of naming rights to champion its place as a major player in the sports sponsorship sector. What it does show though is the industry’s eye for trying fresh approaches in untapped areas. It is a habit brands will look to replicate. 

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