PwC’s Sports Business Advisory practice sat down with Sean O’Reilly, CEO ORSEN, to discuss building purposeful partnerships through esports.
You recently launched an esports competition to raise money for the WHO, can you tell us more about the concept?
We launched the brand SOLIDARITY CHALLENGE in May this year as a non-profit event subsidiary of ORSEN, where we will host and manage sports and esports events to raise awareness and donations to international charitable organisations.
We partnered with the United Nations Foundation and Konami Digital Entertainment to create our first SOLIDARITY CHALLENGE event, a 16 celebrity on-line virtual football tournament with Konami’s PES2020 to raise awareness and donations to the UN Foundation COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for the WHO.
We wanted to utilise our celebrity participants to create engaging content that could be consumed by a traditional sports audience on linear TV as well as esports fans on streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube.
SOLIDARITY CHALLENGE line-up:
Antoine Griezmann (Football), Yaya Touré (Football), Danny Care (Rugby), Liv Cooke (Freestyle Football), Sir Mo Farah (Athletics), Ludovic Giuly (Football), Tommy Fleetwood (Golf), Amandine Henry (Football), Jermaine Jenas (Football), Steve McManaman (Football), Blaise Matuidi (Football), Mathieu Bastareaud (Rugby), Giorgio Chiellini (Football), Robert Pires (Football), Scott McTominay (Football), Louis Saha (Football)
What was the motivation behind creating this competition?
COVID-19 pressed a pause button on ORSEN’s sports marketing activities, as it has done for the majority of the sports industry. We wanted to use our resources and experience to do something positive and purposeful during this unprecedented time.
Why did you decide to bring sports and esports together?
Esports is a growth sector that has been front of mind in the sports agency landscape for some time, but sport and esports are still very different environments from both a participation and audience perspective. The esports audience is still relatively niche and has rarely ventured outside of streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube.
We have seen sports clubs and organisations embrace esports, create their own teams and become part of events, but this has yet to really resonate with traditional sports fans. By engaging household ‘sports’ stars and creating content that can be attractive to sports broadcasters, we can reach more traditional sports fans and start to pull these two verticals closer together.
Do you think we’ll see more collaboration between sports and esports? If so, what opportunities do you think will be most interesting?
There has been collaboration for some time, Electronic Arts first licenced its virtual football game to FIFA in 1993 and the first FIFA Interactive World Cup took place in 2004, but only now are we seeing collaboration translate into audience convergence.
We’re now seeing competition between rights-holders for market share in this space. F1 Esports Pro Series did very well, there have been various virtual cycling, tennis and golf events. Super League Triathlon has launched a great esports series and there are countless virtual football events. There are certainly opportunities that are opening up through the influx of events. Most of these events are one-off, exhibition-style events, which have a place right now due to the unique situation we are in. To create longevity, we may need to see more organisational structures and creation of annual championship series. This will develop storytelling and greater alignment between sports and esports.
Our approach with SOLIDARITY CHALLENGE is a little different, rather than focus on elite esports participants, we’ll focus on creating fun content with celebrities that can drive awareness to charitable organisations that we’ll continue to partner with.
How did you bridge the gap between different industry segments and what did you learn from this experience?
The key for us was the line-up. We put ourselves under a lot of pressure to recruit 16 celebrities in the 3 weeks that we had to organise the event. Thanks to this list of stars, and our alignment with an important charitable cause, SOLIDARITY CHALLENGE had linear broadcast exposure in 161 countries, which is a first for an esports event.
We have learnt a huge amount from our first SOLIDARITY CHALLENGE. If I were to identify 5 key learnings, they would be:
- If you create a positive environment for celebrities, they are your greatest asset. They are bigger than the game itself. You must be sensitive to their time, work around their schedules and align with their objectives to participate.
- Working with charitable organisations requires a very different mindset to operating on a purely commercial model. You need to be flexible both contractually and operationally to get the most out of that partnership.
- Understanding your audience is crucial. To engage a traditional sports audience in an esports event, the content must be focussed on the player, not the game. This importance will dilute over time as we become more accustomed to watching esports, but for now the game content needs to be drip-fed rather than forced upon a sceptical linear sports audience.
- Allow enough time for corporate partnership sales. We didn’t have the luxury of time, as we needed to launch the event at the height of the COVID-19 crisis. This limited our ability to partner with brands that could grow the event with us and maximise donations to the UN Response fund. We’re now planning SOLIDARITY CHALLENGE edition 2 at the end of 2020 and edition 3 in early 2021. This timeframe will enable us to collaborate and partner with a range of brands, broadcasters and celebrities to promote the charities that we partner with.
- There is certainly an appetite from broadcasters to engage in esports properties, especially if you can provide the broadcasters with short form content that they can utilise on their social channels. We look forward to creating future SOLIDARITY CHALLENGE events that will engage audiences on linear broadcast, streaming platforms and social channels.
This project had a strong purpose, how central will purpose be in future partnerships for sports and esports organisations?
The buzz word in the sports industry for the past few years has been ‘authenticity’. Authenticity remains important, but the prominent word we are hearing now is ‘purpose.’
Sport has the power and reach to positively impact society. We’ve seen this throughout history, from Jesse Owen at the 1936 Olympics, the political significance of South Africa’s Rugby World Cup win in 1995 to the stance that sport is taking in the #blacklivesmatter campaign.
It can no longer be just the players that adapt and promote purpose in sport. Rights-holders must take on this responsibility in a more meaningful and impactful way. For sports rights-holders to continue to receive enormous sponsorship investment, there will be a requirement to align with a genuinely purposeful cause and demonstrate that sponsorship investment directly impacts that cause.
Many clubs, franchises or federation foundations and CSR activities currently sit externally from partnerships and sponsorships. This will need to change in the very near future as ‘purpose’ has already become central to the decision-making process for partnership investment.
Your project highlighted the power of collaboration, how important will genuine collaboration be in commercial partnerships over the coming years?
Sports commercial partnerships have evolved significantly over the past 10 years. The focus shifted from brand awareness to customer engagement through activation. In addition to the requirement for ‘purpose’, there is definitively now a need for greater collaboration between rights-holder and commercial partner.
The future will see less brands investing to be seen at an event, they want to be part of it and positively impact that event.
Partner involvement in the past has been somewhat limited to C-Suite executives enjoying the hospitality services that are integrated into their sponsorship. Partnership collaboration of the future will need to reach the entire corporate structure, and the rights-holders that can achieve this will form lasting commercial partnerships.
Our focus for SOLIDARITY CHALLENGE won’t be corporate sponsorship, but corporate participation. We feel that the more we can involve our partners from CEO to intern, the greater awareness we can bring to our charity organisations and ultimately increase the much-needed donations to their funds.
Thank you, Sean, for taking the time to share your valuable insights on building purposeful partnerships through esports.