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Why Mastercard is advertising more with Riot Games even as other brands divest from esports

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Is esports winter real? Not as far as Mastercard is concerned.

As other brands threaten to pull away from esports, Mastercard is going full speed ahead on competitive gaming in 2023. August 21 marked the payment technology brand’s fifth anniversary as a global sponsor of “League of Legends” esports; in June, Mastercard increased its investment in competitive gaming through a global sponsorship of “Valorant,” Riot Games’ other major esport. Chances are, this wasn’t cheap, given how much these deals can cost — a Riot Games representative declined to share the specific value of the sponsorship agreements, but brands’ past partnerships with major esports leagues have reportedly cost between $17 million and upwards of $144 million for multi-year deals.

Mastercard’s growing involvement in Riot Games’ esports ecosystem is a ringing endorsement of the game developer’s long-term plans for competitive gaming. Riot views esports as the “future of sport” — an entertainment product that will one day be as lucrative and popular as traditional sports such as baseball and basketball — and Mastercard is ready and willing to buy into this vision, at least for now.

“The principles are exactly the same; people are going to Madison Square Garden and watching the entire thing,” said Mastercard CMO Raja Rajamannar. “It’s a sold-out audience, right? So we said, ‘this is something which we should get into.’”

Mastercard’s approach to esports is in line with its approach to traditional sports marketing.

“Their portfolio is really impressive. It’s got premium properties, like the MLB, the PGA Tour, UEFA Champions League, the Australian Open,” said Jamie Wootton, head of esports at the marketing agency AFK. “Within the esports realm, the events that Riot Games produce — they are the esports equivalent of those other events.”

As marketers become more wary of the ROI of esports partnerships, Mastercard is confident in the numbers it’s been getting from Riot Games. Mastercard now offers dedicated “League of Legends” credit cards — referred to internally as “passion cards” — to “League” fans, which Rajamannar cited as one of the main ways Mastercard measures the returns of its contract with Riot.

“That is a direct, straightforward increase in my business. If we didn’t have ‘League of Legends,’ those cards would not have been in existence, which means those revenues and those profits would not have happened,” Rajamannar said. “There is a direct correlation and causal relationship that we’ve established.”

Rajamannar declined to share specific ROI numbers or metrics, but said that Mastercard looks at three “dimensions” to gauge the effectiveness of its partnership with Riot Games. One dimension is direct growth in Mastercard’s business, expressed in activations such as the “passion cards.” The second is simply brand affinity — whether the relationship with Riot elicits positive feelings or trust in Mastercard among the game developer’s community. 

The third dimension is what Rajamannar refers to as the “competitive advantage” of the partnership — how much it sets Mastercard apart from other brands involved in the space, an aspect of the partnership that Rajamannar said was expressed in his company’s decision to sponsor “Valorant” esports.

“We are both broadening our presence and deepening our presence by this ‘Valorant’ sponsorship as well — so, when you’re broadening and deepening simultaneously, what happens is it builds a significant advantage for us, and a strong association amongst the gaming community that Mastercard is actually a good product, a good brand for gamers, because it understands them,” Rajamannar said.

The rollout of Mastercard’s “League of Legends” cards demonstrates the incremental value generated by the company’s long-running relationship with a large esports publisher. It took years for Riot to feel comfortable selling credit cards to its fans — but now that the relationship is established, “Valorant” themed credit cards could come around much faster, without upsetting the balance between Riot’s users and its advertisers.

“It’s why I think a multi-year partnership is so critical, because you can’t jam all that in a year,” said Riot Games global head of “League of Legends” esports Naz Aletaha, who helped Riot sign its original Mastercard deal in 2018. “You need that runway with a partner to try new things and evolve.”

In addition to endorsing Riot Games’ vision for the future of competitive gaming, Mastercard’s growing involvement in the Riot ecosystem shows how games that directly incorporate elements of diversity and inclusivity can be a more attractive playground for brands concerned about the toxicity and potential brand safety issues present in esports.

Valorant, with its relatively racially mixed and gender-diverse in-game characters, or “agents,” helps assuage some of these concerns. The game’s lack of realistic weapons and combat, a hallmark of other esports such as “Counter-Strike” and “Call of Duty,” is another brand safety boon for Riot’s newest esport. 

“Mastercard is a global company, and when they start to understand how these agents represent all these different regions, they’re starting to think, ‘wow, we can activate really powerfully in different regions, using the IP in a certain way,’” said Riot chief commercial officer Jonathan Zweig.

As some brands reduce their spending in esports, Riot execs believe that Mastercard’s reinvestment in the Riot ecosystem could help spur other non-endemic brands to step up their involvement in the space, just as their initial announcement did back in 2018. 

The 2018 announcement represented Mastercard’s first large-scale investment into esports, although the brand had previously dipped its toe into the space by sponsoring a series of “Dota 2” events in 2012 and 2013. Since 2018, Mastercard has scaled up its esports partnerships significantly, expanding its list of partners to include teams such as FlyQuest and G2 Esports and individual player–influencers like Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black — but its relationship with Riot remains its largest connection to the esports scene, by far.

“We’re all very happy to see progress like Mastercard coming on board with [‘Valorant’], because it’s a domino that we think will encourage others and continue to relay the value proposition of brands getting involved in esports,” Aletaha said.

Mastercard and Riot’s agreement is poised to grow further as Riot develops even more esports products, from “Teamfight Tactics” to the yet-to-be-released fighting game “Project L.” When these esports are ready to hit the big time, Riot will be bringing them to Mastercard before anyone else.

“If we did have a great esports opportunity, I would take it to them first,” Zweig said, “because I think they would expect it.”

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