When esports gamers on Team Liquid arrived in Detroit for a major tournament last month, they donned new playoff jerseys with a prominent Honda logo on the left sleeve. Their opponent for the North American gaming championship, Cloud9, also had refreshed uniforms with a BMW logo on the right sleeve.
Thousands of fans poured into Little Caesars Arena to watch the "League of Legends" championship series between the five-player teams. Notably, the competition did not include virtual Honda Civics or BMW 3-series sedans on a computer-generated road course. "League of Legends" is a multiplayer fantasy game with dragons and castles but no cars or tracks.
Along with more traditional sponsors such as computer companies and energy drink makers, automakers are stepping up their marketing on gaming platforms, where they can reach younger buyers contemplating their first new vehicle. "League of Legends" may not feature cars, but it has millions of viewers who are spending more time streaming and less on traditional media.
Honda made a big play into the esports space by sponsoring one of the most prominent squads in the world with Team Liquid in January, along with dominant streaming platform Twitch. Honda doubled down in August by becoming the exclusive automotive sponsor of the "League of Legends" competition. BMW became Cloud9's automotive partner in March.
Honda's go-big play paid off in the Detroit competition. Team Liquid became North American champions for the fourth year in a row and will compete in the global "League of Legends" finals in Europe starting in October. Honda's league-level exclusive partnership includes perks such as scoreboard ad placement during the games and other first-tier exposure.
Phil Hruska, manager of media strategy at American Honda, said the brand started with gaming five years ago with vehicle integrations. The Honda Fit was worked into "Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist" and the Civic into "Forza," "Guitar Hero Live" and the NHL World Championship video game competition.
The esports collaboration really took off this year with Team Liquid, Twitch and the "League of Legends" championship series this summer as the exclusive automotive sponsor at the league level. The decision, Hruska said, was driven by the need to get in front of young adults as they prepare for their first new-vehicle purchase and start developing brand loyalty.
"The idea to immerse the Honda brand in esports really began because of our drive to build strong, lasting relationships with the next generation of car buyers — millennials and Gen Z — the powerhouses behind the explosive growth of esports," Hruska said in an interview via email.
"According to Experian data, millennials and Gen Z are the only generations gaining automotive market share this year," he added. The two demographic groups combined now edge out baby boomers as new-vehicle buyers. Millennials and Gen Z accounted for 32.4 percent of new vehicle purchases in the first quarter of this year, compared with boomers at 32.2 percent.
Live sports has long been a coveted venue to find engaged viewership, and esports is the modern version of that.
The "League of Legends" championship finals were watched by almost 100 million fans worldwide last year, Hruska said, "nearly rivaling Super Bowl viewership figures." In North America, the Legends season had 1.1 million average daily unique viewers and 26 million hours watched — the most of any North American esports league, he added.
Riot Games, the developer of "League of Legends," is partnering with Nielsen on various metrics, and Honda intends to use the data to validate its lift in brand awareness. "Thus far, our research shows our target audiences reacting positively to our gaming content, watching our Honda gaming social media videos four times longer than nongaming content," Hruska said.
As part of the marketing effort, Honda had a customized Odyssey minivan built for the Team Liquid squad with seats that match its blue-and-white gaming chairs. The team also has custom-wrapped Civics that appear with individual players in video spots on Twitch, YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Hruska said.
Honda is in for the long haul, given that esports have proved the real deal.
"Esports are clearly growing in terms of participation and the fan base," he said. "We see the serious passion behind fans supporting esports teams and league partners every single day, and we're excited to help give them more to cheer for."