Who cares about the team?


We’re going to be the next Supreme.

So I haven’t written in here for ages.. thanks to Philip at North for giving me an indirect kick in the ass. How many times I’ve heard a brand say they want to be the next [insert popular brand here] encouraged me to pen down some thoughts..

Over the last few years, a growing group of people willing to try things out and I have been working on Level99. In those years, we’ve had (and still do have) the opportunity to work with and learn from a variety of esports brand builders.

This has varied from tournament organisers like ESL, teams like OG DOTA2 and NYXL to peripheral folks like Ballistix and HyperX. At some point, we’ve all ended up discussing a topic people frequently speak on today: Do esports fans prefer pro-players over the teams they represent? More importantly, if this is the accepted status quo, what can be done to change it?

Many have gravitated to underpinning their brands to influencers to grow. For lack of a better word (though that’ll change eventually), influencers are those with a large, dedicated following whose actions influence that of their following. Brands have been relying on these aka celebrity endorsements for a long time (growing post 1925). 100 years later.. there’s nothing truly new about the concept of allying with a popular figure to promote your brand to the world.

As with most things, the evolution of the internet didn’t change the game. It made it more accessible and lowered costs.

Today, you’d be hard pressed to find someone living in the modern economy unfamiliar with influencers and brand endorsements. It’s everywhere you look. So much so that undisclosed brand endorsements online finally came under closer scrutiny over the last 5-6 years (note that this is all covered under Section 5 of the FTC act). An investigation carried out in 2017 ended up with over 100 individual letters being issued to both brands and influencers (huge celebrities) addressing the issues (and some fines) with commercial relationships not being properly disclosed.

So, allying with an influencer works. Almost too well. Every so often influencers mess up promoting the brands they’re paid to promote, even when they’re clearly marked as an ad.

And this is the esports brand problem.

Celebrity and influencer endorsements have become so profitable for both the brand and promoter that they often don’t care for the brand personally. They often don’t have an authentic affection for the brand they rep. Money talks. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be paid for promotion.

But because influencers know they can influence so many and be paid for it, brands (in this case esports teams) forget to build a meaningful connection between their hopeful brand and the influencer.

For many esports teams, I feel this is the root of the issue. They’re paying young pro-players and streamers to don their jerseys, throw up their logos/headers and represent their brand…. that they spend almost no time thinking how to build and invest in a brand players want to care about and in turn, their ever-growing astute fan base relate to. When the player leaves, the teams brand is all but a distant memory. 

If there’s one simple learning I’ve come to realise over the last few years.. I believe there is value in brands investing in building their brand for them.

*added bits: action + thoughts on what’s going on in the space today

To brand building hopefuls: Do the things you want to do and you’ll attract people that are attracted to what you’re building because of that. Teams often see their players as a means to build their brand instead of investing in doing things that come from the brand. And not just once a quarter or when the budget frees up. Make it a priority to build your brand first.. build via the influencers second.

There are team and non-team brands in esports today that are doing great. They tell us so often. Unfortunately, they rely almost entirely on their influencer/celebrity endorsements. The huge short-term cash gains make it challenging to justify spending money on their own brand activities because hey, best return right? These same folks will preach the influencer gospel all day, every day. It’s the reason they’re doing so well, why wouldn’t they? It doesn’t take a genius to tell you influencer-led brands work. What happens when those key influencers change their minds? Move on? Have a desire to do something different? There’s a happy middle ground somewhere – where influencer + brand exist in some sort of balance, each serving one another. It’s just not the route often chosen.

Today, value investing, made more popular by Billionaire investor Warren Buffet (not an endorsement), isn’t how most investors see their esports investments. The rare few will calmly take the ups and the downs and keep building. Most will panic, make cuts or gravitate towards influencer only led strategies to get that juicy, glorious rush.

“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago” – W.Buffet

Something I’ve personally observed in esports: I often find the identity of a well-crafted brand ends up mirroring that of their founders in some way or another. The iconic brands of our time have spent a lot figuring out who they are then doing it over and over and over again. In a world where so many more people can be reached at such a low-cost, we sometimes forget that we don’t have to reach them all.

Quality > Quantity is something we’ve forgotten as hopeful brand builders.

Don’t be ‘the next Supreme’, be you.