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Why Activision Blizzard's esports data deal with Nielsen matters

Videogame maker Activision Blizzard launched Overwatch League, a structured, competitive league with 12 franchises for playing its mega-popular shooter game Overwatch, in January. The league was an immediate hit: 10 million viewers in its first week, with backing from the likes of New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft and LA Rams owner Stan Kroenke, and sponsorships galore. All the action streams live on Amazon-owned Twitch, which is reportedly paying Activision $90 million for the two-year deal. Overwatch League is seen as the pinnacle of esports, the term for live competitive video gaming.

Now Activision Blizzard (ATVI) wants to make sure Overwatch League sponsors, which include big consumer brands like HP, Intel, Mondelez, T-Mobile, and Toyota, know exactly how much value they’re getting from their esports spending. The company has formed a unique partnership with Nielsen to get detailed data tracking of the exposure and eyeballs generated from its esports leagues.

For Overwatch League, Overwatch World Cup, Overwatch Contender, and Call of Duty World League, Nielsen will track the amount of exposure a sponsor’s logo gets on screen by looking at number of viewers and length of time viewed, and it will arrive at a dollar value behind the sponsorships.

“We are running a professional esports league just as you would run a traditional sports league,” says Brandon Snow, Activision Blizzard’s senior VP and chief revenue officer of esports leagues. “If you think about the way Nielsen works with the traditional sports world, and the way advertisers measure their involvement, this is the natural evolution. We want Nielsen to bring its rigor to the way our partners look at their ROI.”

This all may sound rather unsexy: It’s an analytics measuring partnership so that Activision Blizzard can ensure its esports sponsors can see the worth of their sponsorships. But it actually shows how the esports industry, still very new but growing like a weed, is rapidly maturing.

A woman dressed as the fantasy character Widowmaker from the Activision Blizzard videogame Overwatch walks at Gamescom fair in Cologne, Germany, on Aug. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
A woman dressed as the fantasy character Widowmaker from the Activision Blizzard videogame Overwatch walks at Gamescom fair in Cologne, Germany, on Aug. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Snow himself is an example of the legitimacy of esports: he left the NBA, where he spent 10 years as a marketing VP, to join Activision Blizzard, which does not make any traditional sports video games. “I loved the NBA, and they do a great job of engaging a younger audience, but what we do here in the world of esports and with Overwatch is a level up in engagement with the millennial target,” he says. “We are talking about engaging a millennial target for almost an hour with our content. No other live sport can claim they can consistently get a millennial to watch their sport for that length of time. Certainly not a baseball game or a football game.”

Still, Snow acknowledges, there are plenty of esports skeptics.

“There is a narrative that has existed in esports,” he says. The gist of it: that companies are getting involved in esports in order to not look behind the curve, but don’t know how to really measure their investment or what value they’re getting out of it. (That sounds a lot like blockchain.) “What we are now saying is we will have the data and we can now measure the value for you and show you. It’s no longer this gray unknown box that people perceive esports as being.”

As sponsors of the Overwatch League, T-Mobile, Toyota, and the others get signage in tournament spaces and on Twitch live-streams, but can also do their own marketing activations using Overwatch logos; most have signed multi-year contracts, so they are betting big on esports.

Nielsen’s numbers may compel other brands to make the same bet. All of the granular data tracking will serve to boost esports even further — and the hard numbers might convert the skeptics, too.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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