Reporting from Kevin Hitt in the Esports Observer suggests that both the Call of Duty League (CDL) and the Overwatch League (OWL) will relax their stance on gambling and betting sponsors attached to the projects. Both products are owned by Activision-Blizzard, and the latter has struggled for commercial success in recent times with western views dropping dramatically and an increasing reliance on Chinese viewing numbers.
While the CDL has had less of a public struggle than the OWL of late, both competitions asked for a high buy-in from their founder teams based on a business model they have not been able to realize as of yet. Part of that is down to the fact they had a location-based model lined up prior to COVID hitting, but part comes down to the gap between expectation and reality when it comes to fan interest and their ability to monetize esports.
It seems that the owners have finally realized they are not yet big enough to turn down major sponsorship deals, but what makes this more interesting and potentially controversial is the position of the two games in the esports space. Overwatch in particular is a very family-friendly title, and while Call of Duty has a massive adult player base it also skews younger than other games like CSGO or Rainbow Six Siege.
Implications of the deals
Views from inside the industry were cautiously optimistic, with Flashpoint commissioner and former League of Legends caster Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles welcoming the move, and confident it can be executed responsibly. While there is no doubt the products can be marketed to adults, as he said, the question may arise when talking about the younger parts of the Call of Duty fanbase, and how they are affected by deals such as this.
This is not the first time the OWL has partnered with alcohol companies, as Bud Light had a deal with the company back in 2019, but it does appear to be their first foray into working with betting companies directly. Last year, the CoD League entered into a partnership with Sportsradar in an effort to increase confidence in punters looking to bet on esports, and this seems like a logical next step for a competition looking to provide value to their investors.
Betting and liquor deals a new source of revenue in trying COVID times
When contacted for comment, original reporter Kevin Hitt stressed his own belief this move is aimed squarely at providing further commercial value for partners who may have paid $25M for their spot in the league. “Finding different ways to increase revenue to survive in this COVID-19 world has never been more difficult. What I think the loosening of these sponsorship restrictions means is that there is obviously a need right now for teams to have more money-making opportunities,” Hitt said.
Hitt did caution against the potential harm, as well as the perceived public backlash over the deal at a time when traditional sport is wresting with its relationship with the gaming industry. “With that being said, Activision Blizzard will need to make sure that the way in which the activations are presented to a young video game playing audience is responsible and above reproach.”
Marketing "adult" content to esports fans
The conversation comes at a time with major esports streaming services are already being forced to consider how their users are protected from what is traditionally perceived as "adult" content. Twitch in particular has come under fire for the rise of "hot tub" streamers on a platform once aimed solely at gamers, and the company being forced into a situation where every user had to use age verification to access content could be potentially disastrous for their business model.
On the other hand, CSGO and other games are already knee-deep in betting deals, and the FGC even saw forays from the pornography industry a few years ago, leading to the brief existence of Team YouPorn within the space. This won’t generate quite as much controversy as that deal did, but it does add to the growing volume of questions relating to safeguarding the younger parts of the esports crowd as the scene continues to grow.