How Call of Duty League teams are using the return of in-person events to generate brand interest

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Live esports events have returned, and brands are taking notice. As Call of Duty League (CDL) teams invite fans back into the arena for local area network (LAN) play, they are using live events to bring in new sponsors and engage with their pre-existing partners in new ways.

After a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDL tentatively returned to live events in July 2021, inviting a live audience to attend the CDL 2021 Stage 5 Major in Arlington, Texas. Since then, in-person CDL events have been relatively few and far between — but the league is stepping up its involvement in LAN events in 2022, most recently at last month’s CDL 2022 Major I hosted in Arlington’s Esports Stadium by OpTic Gaming.

This weekend marks the latest Call of Duty League LAN event, the Minnesota RØKKR’s CDL Major II. Over the next few days, 12 professional Call of Duty teams will convene in the Mystic Lake Casino Hotel in Prior Lake, Minnesota, to play for keeps in the first-person shooter game. Playing on LAN reduces latency in the teams’ gameplay, increasing the competitive integrity of the tournament.

“In the esports industry, we’re fortunate to have been able to continue to compete online — but the best version of the product is a live event. The truest form of competition is on LAN, for a host of technical reasons,” said Brett Diamond, CEO of the RØKKR and its parent company, Version1. “From a fan experience standpoint, there’s really nothing like being in a venue that’s full of fans.”

To interested brands, the frenzied fan engagement generated by live events is valuable evidence of the increasing popularity of competitive gaming, more tangible than the viewership or engagement figures of digital events or activations, per Diamond and other CDL team representatives. For telecommunications firm Bell Canada, the presence of live events and an in-person gaming arena were encouraging reasons to partner with the CDL’s Toronto Ultra, according to Alyson Walker, Chief Commercial Officer of the team’s parent company OverActive Media. “Whether it’s live events at one of their retail locations in a mall or a live event as big as a CDL Major, all of those are different ways to engage fans in-person,” Walker said. “[Bell has] been amazing partners through the pandemic, but they’re certainly very excited to have in-person opportunities.”

While some experts agree the return of in-person events is a benefit to esports organizations and their brand partners, they cautioned live events are not inherently better than digital activations just because they take place in the real world. Rather, the advantage of an in-person event is that it gives esports companies more opportunities to flex their brand-activation muscles in creative ways, packing numerous bells and whistles into events that would’ve been relatively streamlined if held via livestream. This weekend’s Major II event will include extra features like an open “Challengers” tournament for attendees; in June, the Toronto Ultra plan to host a third Major event with extras including local food trucks and branded retail opportunities.

“These content events are where the future is, regardless of whether it’s live or not,” said Harry Tidswell, a senior partnerships manager for the social media and influencer marketing agency Fanbytes, which works with game developers such as Ubisoft and 2K. “But when you’re having something that’s live, you can increase the production value — you can make more of a moment from it.” 

The timing of the CDL’s return to live events is not entirely auspicious. With a brutal real-life conflict raging in Ukraine, the thought of appearing alongside simulated video game violence could give pause to some brands, though Diamond said none of the upcoming Major’s brand partners have reached out with specific concerns. COVID-19 continues to be a potential brand safety risk as well, though the presence of the vaccine makes it less likely that LAN tournaments could become superspreader events.

“We’re in discussions with game developers about getting content creators to make content for war games, and we’ve pulled the plug on that ourselves, as a duty of care to the creators we work with,” Tidswell said. “We don’t want to put them in a position where they’re going to get negative backlash.”

Going into the weekend, Diamond and the RØKKR anticipate that about 5,000 fans will circulate through the Mystic Lake Casino Hotel, with tickets for the weekend selling out in a matter of weeks.

“I think we probably could have sold double the number of tickets that we have, just given the fact that we were sold out for Saturday and Sunday a couple weeks ago,” Diamond said.

Walker feels similarly optimistic about the Ultra’s upcoming live event. “[Toronto’s] Mattamy Athletic Centre has between 2,000 to 2,500 seats, depending on seat kills and how many chairs you put on the floor — so our goal would be to fill it all four days,” she said.

With a sold-out venue, Diamond hopes to use the weekend’s impressive turnout to inform potential brand partners about the scope and reach of the RØKKR’s fan base.

“We’ve invited a lot of brand contacts to the event, so they can see it first-hand,” he said. “Putting on these events is a great opportunity for us to demonstrate what esports is, and what an amazing fan experience it can offer.”

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