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Sports Business Journal is proud to present the inaugural class of the Esports Rising Awards honorees. Selected by the SBJ Esports staff, Esports Rising honors not just what we see as the “best” in industry but also those deals and strategies that stand out — a brand activation unlike others, leveraging technology that gives one organization an advantage over its competitors or developing a media strategy no one in the industry has ever pursued.
We will present the awards on Oct. 13 at Esports Rising 2022 — SBJ’s annual gathering of esports industry decision-makers, sponsors and executives — at the Westin New York at Times Square. The event will explore issues important to the growth and sustainability of competitive gaming, the trends and strategies that are leading to innovation, and the state of the esports world.
Esports Rising kicks off with an off-site welcome reception Oct. 12, and after the main event concludes, attendees may go to Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater to watch a League of Legends World Championship Group Stage match. Click here for more information on Esports Rising.
Mercedes-Benz activations show creative flair
Innovative and groundbreaking esports activations — including creating personalized championship rings for the reigning League of Legends world champions, Edward Gaming, and finding innovative ways to integrate its products into League of Legends’ intellectual properties — earned Mercedes-Benz the Arising Brand Award.
The German luxury car manufacturer’s journey to building organic brand awareness among esports fans began with its sponsorship of ESL One Hamburg 2017 and its interaction with the community watching the Dota 2 Major. “Mercedes-Benz partnering with us was the first time a nonendemic sponsor of its size activated its brand within an ESL tournament,” said Kristina Müller, former ESL head of strategic partnerships, who oversaw the activation.
Board of Management: Ola Källenius, chairman; Jörg Burzer, Renata Jungo Brüngger, Sabine Kohleisen, Markus Schäfer,Britta Seeger, Hubertus Troska, Harald Wilhelm
Key esports projects/initiatives:
Exclusive automotive partner of all global League of Legends events.
Mercedes-EQ and Riot Games created the championship ring (left) for the Worlds trophy ceremony.
Partnered with SK Gaming, a leading esports organization and one of the world’s most recognized brands in competitive video gaming, on Project Avarosa to promote diversity in esports.
Müller also recalled how impressed she was by a premium brand such as Mercedes-Benz taking the risk of venturing into esports and its intent to create value for the community over just grabbing eyeballs. “Mercedes-Benz demonstrated that it takes esports seriously and wanted to become a genuine member of the community by listening to community feedback as well as my suggestions and critiques.”
The Mercedes-Benz ESL One Hamburg sponsorship generated unprecedented social media engagement thanks to activations, including sponsorship of broadcast segments, team intros inspired by car commercials, team-branded cars used by teams and displayed outside the arena throughout the event, and the Mercedes-Benz MVP award. Alexei “Solo” Berezin, who was selected by analyst and fan votes as the tournament MVP, won a new E-class sedan.
Following the success of its first esports activation, Mercedes-Benz sponsored some of the biggest esports clubs and tournaments before taking its engagement a step further. At the beginning of 2019, Mercedes-Benz acquired a 25% stake in German esports organization SK Gaming, taking on the challenges of esports ownership alongside its equal SK Gaming co-owners Deutsche Telekom and German soccer club FC Cologne.
Beyond co-owning and sponsoring SK Gaming, Mercedes-Benz maintained its partnership with ESL and added League of Legends creator Riot Games to its partnership portfolio. As the main sponsor of Riot Games’ major international League of Legends esports events, such as the Mid-Season Invitational and the League of Legends World Championships, Mercedes-Benz developed fresh ideas to engage the audience, including animated car cameo appearances in the music video for the official Worlds anthem “Burn It All Down.”
Xset builds organization intentional about diversity
Xset’s founders had a vision for an elite organization that went beyond competition. For them, it wasn’t just about excelling at esports but inviting those into the fold who might not have understood they were welcome, too. In just over two years, Xset has grown into a competitive esports juggernaut and an organization rich in diversity looking to disrupt the status quo. The inaugural Organization on The Rise Award winners — Xset and its founders Greg Selkoe, Wil Eddins, Clinton Sparks (right) and Marco Mereu — say that this is just the beginning.
The Boston-based organization, which fields teams in esports such as Valorant, Rocket League, Splitgate and Rainbow Six: Siege, also made a promise to grow and promote Valorant on the women’s side. In March — basically a week after making the vow — the organization announced it had signed a women’s Valorant roster.
Key executives: Greg Selkoe, Clinton Sparks, Wil Eddins, Erin Ashley Simon
Key esports projects/initiatives:
Produced Drais Gaming Cabanas in Las Vegas
Esports teams in Valorant, Rainbow Six: Siege, Rocket League, Call of Duty: Warzone, iRacing, Splitgate
Culture and entertainment efforts featuring: Ozuna, Tee Grizzley, Kyle Van Noy, Swae Lee, Fanga, Nigel Sylvester, Minna Stess, Adrian Colbert, Stephen Tomasin, Anthony Alfredo.
Diversity and inclusion: Partnered with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
“We have established a brand that has certain values and I think we have walked the walk,” said Selkoe, CEO of Xset. “I think it’s had a big influence on gaming in general, the way we’ve done things. We’re a young organization, and to have the caliber of folks that have come in and invested and gotten behind us, even in this tough climate, has obviously been super-meaningful to us.”
Xset has found its way not only in competitive gaming but also in integrating a host of others into the operation. Xset invited Erin Ashley Simon, a talented entertainment and gaming host who knows the industry, into its ownership group. Simon, who has been a co-host on the Bloomberg show “Cheddar” and featured on “Good Morning America,” has been a gamer all her life. This makes Xset one of few esports organizations to have a woman of color in its ownership group.
“She’s a superstar. She’s not only great in front of the camera, but she also has her hands on a ton of stuff in gaming and beyond gaming. She’s just so smart around business and strategy,” said Selkoe.
Recently, Xset added tattoo artist Joaquin Ganga (aka “Ganga”), who has tattooed the likes of LeBron James, Drake, Post Malone and many other celebrities and pro athletes, to its partnership ranks. They will create gaming spaces in Ganga’s tattoo studios.
Xset also acquired Astoic Management, a Black-owned talent agency with offices in Beverly Hills, Calif. Both of the firm’s co-founders, Lonnie Anthony (an SBJ New Voices Under 30 honoree in 2021) and Rob Martin, have been appointed to executive roles at Xset.
And Xset isn’t done expanding.
“We have so many new models that we’ve created,” Sparks said. “We have some culturally disruptive things to announce in the near future that we’ve been working on behind the scenes. Once we unload those, not only is it going to be a significant increase in awareness of our brand, but it’s going to open the doors and really change the game for what gaming can be and what it means and how it can grow all the opportunities that can come with it.”
‘Arcane’ earns high praise for taking esports mainstream
Riot Games’ recent history of rich storytelling of League of Legends extended to Netflix with the 2021 release of “Arcane,” the critically acclaimed story of sisters Vi and Jinx (two characters from the game). The series is also Sports Business Journal’s Esports Rising Above Award winner for its efforts in bringing the League of Legends intellectual property to a wider audience and doing it in a way that’s garnered critical and mainstream praise.
HQ: Los Angeles
Key executives: John Needham, president, esports; Shauna Spenley, global president of entertainment; Whalen Rozelle, COO, esports
“Arcane” was Riot’s first animated series set in the IP of the League of Legends game. It was integrated into the 2021 League of Legends World Championship. “Arcane” dropped on Netflix several hours after the conclusion of Worlds last year. The show was distributed by Netflix and held the No. 1 global spot for three weeks in a row, also hitting the top 10 in over 87 countries.
Season 1 maintains a rare 100% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes and won nine Annie Awards (honoring the best in animation), including Best TV/Media General Audience, Best Character Design, and Best Writing, making it the most-nominated and awarded TV show of 2022.
“Enemy,” the hit single by Imagine Dragons from the show’s original soundtrack, has reached over 2 billion streams and went to No. 1 on the Billboard U.S. radio chart in May.
”Arcane” also recently won three Creative Emmy Awards.
The strong connection between the sisters and the story it fleshed out wowed not just League of Legends fans but mainstream critics as well. The series was nominated for five Emmys, receiving favorable comparisons to HBO’s “Game of Thrones” for its character development. Netflix viewers embraced “Arcane” when it first debuted, maintaining its momentum over the duration of its run. Its Rotten Tomatoes ratings are through the roof in every single aspect.
“Arcane wouldn’t exist without the overwhelming excitement and love and passion that players have,” said Whalen Rozelle, Riot COO of esports, of the “love letter” for those invested in League of Legends. Riot’s most recent Worlds tournament for League of Legends featured “Arcane”-inspired imagery of lore-based towns Piltover and Zaun. Riot’s other esports offering, Valorant, featured an in-game bundle with a skin for the sheriff modeled after Jinx’s “Zap!” ability from League of Legends.
In the past, media based on games have been underwhelming. Riot’s “Arcane” shows it’s possible to make the world of a video game emotionally compelling, easy for those who have never played League of Legends to get into, and fulfilling for longtime League fans. Arcane ticks every single box on the proverbial shoulder content for a competitive video game entertainment category.
HPE, Evil Geniuses boost use of performance analytics
Evil Geniuses has long been at the forefront of innovation, as befits one of the most recognized esports groups in North America and beyond. Looking to capture technological competitive advantages, the Seattle-based organization has turned to advanced analytics and performance metrics, while enlisting the aid of Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s cutting-edge technology, to improve player performance. Evil Geniuses uses technology to benefit both players and fans, making it the inaugural winner of the Esports Tech Innovations Award.
This past year saw EG embark down the road of technological innovation and partnerships related to player performance. Using HPE’s data analytics capabilities and artificial intelligence services bolsters EG’s proprietary player performance models. The partnership has been a boon to more than a few endeavors, such as the new Factor platform.
Key executives: Nicole LaPointe Jameson, CEO; Chris DeAppolonio, chief innovation officer; Jessica Hammond, chief culture officer; John Jung, VP of operations and studio; Leonard Edwards, VP and head of global partnerships
Key esports projects/initiatives in technology and data and analytics:
Pioneered the use of data and analytics in esports to build a championship winning LCS team, using EG’s proprietary technology and data science team to discover new talent in the North American League of Legends scene; created leading talent development programs for Evil Geniuses League of Legends teams; and elevated strategy development for upcoming matches through automated insights that streamline the research for teams, allowing coaches more time to focus on the players.
Signed a multiyear partnership with Hewlett Packard Enterprise with the goal of bringing real-time data-driven insights to esports through AI and machine learning.
Launched Factor.gg, a free-to-use esports analytics platform that provides in-depth statistical information for performance analysis of professional League of Legends.
Factor, launched last year by EG, provides advanced statistics for professional League of Legends players that allows all players to learn from its information.
“With Factor, we’re responding to fan interest in advanced stats and esports analysis and driving a change in how this complex data is accessed and analyzed,” said Chris DeAppolonio, EG chief innovation officer. “Our hope is that Factor sparks further analytical discovery of what defines top talent across competitive League.”
This year, EG has taken its analytical skills to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in the launch of Blueprint, its proprietary data analysis system. The system enables the organization to help arrange its rosters to fit each tournament it plays in. In order to best use the Blueprint system, EG has deployed a 15-person roster split up into three teams, a first in the CS:GO scene.
“We look at how we’ve integrated data into everything we do at EG as it relates to gaming and esports, which is a natural extension for us that started with League of Legends, where our team was able to build out not only scouting metrics and rubrics to identify talent and score talent and figure out who to bring onto our amateur and academy rosters, but also to help identify when players are ready to move up,” said DeAppolonio.
Developed by Danny Engels, EG director of gaming excellence, the system gives the organization’s CS:GO teams information on to how to play against certain teams, which maps are advantageous for them, and more. And once again, EG is planning to use some of this data for the scene at-large, not just itself. The organization wants to help grow the game in North America, for both pros and players at home.
Valorant’s Game Changers expands opportunities
Valorant’s launch has turned the first-person shooter world on its head. The Counter-Strike-adjacent game has emerged as a real competitor to shooters over the course of its 2½ years. One of its crowning achievements has been the Game Changers initiative, winner of Sports Business Journal’s Esports Rising Diversity and Inclusion Award.
Formed in February 2021, Game Changers is a parallel competition in the Valorant Champions Tour format that created unique opportunities for women and other marginalized genders within the Valorant ecosystem. If team participation is any indication, Game Changers is a rousing success so far: Cloud9, Evil Geniuses, Shopify Rebellion, and more have bought in.
Valorant Game Changers
HQ: Los Angeles
Key executives: John Needham, president, esports; Whalen Rozelle, COO, esports; Anna Donlon, senior vice president and studio head
Key esports projects/initiatives:
Game Changers supplements the competitive Valorant season by creating opportunities and exposure for women within Valorant Esports. It aims to cultivate a competitive women’s scene and highlight aspiring Tier 1 and Tier 2 professionals. Additionally, Game Changers Academy supports grassroots competition and improvement opportunities for Tier 3 and amateur players.
With its launch in North America, Brazil, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Europe in 2021, Game Changers hosted more than 25 regional tournaments and supported more than 300 players around the globe. In 2022, Riot Games is elevating Game Changers by bringing together regional competition into a final, global tournament in November.
Whalen Rozelle, Riot Games’ COO of esports, is proud of what Game Changers has accomplished and acknowledges that there’s a long way to go. “Game Changers came about due to a bunch of really passionate individuals who took up that [diversity] rallying cry, and we sort of challenged ourselves,” Rozelle said. Esports has the capability to have a truly neutral playing field, he said, and Game Changers is a way to break down societal barriers that are placed in front of women in the esports industry and globally.
The spirit of Game Changers exists across Valorant, Rozelle said. One of the pillars of the program is not relegating Riot’s diversity efforts to just esports teams — but rather to give women and other marginalized genders platforms as casters, observers, administrators, and various other job titles.
While Game Changers is separate from the main VCT competition, Riot will integrate Game Changers more deeply with the organizations that are fielding rosters. Specifically, Rozelle said he’s proud of the time devoted to listening to what women from individual regions need as Game Changers. “[That time] was well worth it,” he said. “It’s serving the needs and meeting the needs of the women in each region.”
The future of Game Changers will continue to be decided by the women who are taking part. Rozelle said that any iteration of Game Changers will be informed by feedback and take the perspectives of the marginalized people it serves into account.