Trading Cards: A Bridge between Traditional Sports and Esports Business Models
As the esports scene explodes, brands are learning to navigate the gap between this burgeoning industry and traditional sports on multiple levels. Media rights, sponsorship value and overall ROI battle for market share, but the winning model will ultimately rely on innovative partnerships and an understanding of the esports landscape.
While many brands have struggled to strike the right chord within esports culture, two companies worked hand in hand to capitalize on this rapidly expanding market. Last year, traditional met nontraditional when Blizzard Entertainment, creator of the Overwatch League, partnered with Upper Deck, a company recognized for its premier trading cards and memorabilia. Upper Deck’s traditional line extends to exclusive sports figures, like Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, LeBron James, Wayne Gretzky and more. Looking to the future after more than 30 years of success, Upper Deck designed a platform incorporating a hybrid line of digital and tangible trading cards for the esports market—aptly named “e-Pack," to engage fans all over the world. Overwatch is the first major global professional esports league, with 20 teams based in cities across Asia, Europe, and North America.
The new platform – which allows users to buy, open, collect and store actual, physical trading cards – was key to Blizzard’s partnership with Upper Deck. E-Pack meets the esports culture where it exists—online—rather than in the traditional, physical, retail environment. An esports fan opens his or her cards virtually for a preview of the physical cards they will receive in the mail, if they choose. They also have the option of keeping the cards online rather than receiving physical cards. Either way, trading is always an option and with 176 countries on the e-Pack bandwagon, there are countless ways to mix and match.
Another popular feature of the e-Pack concept gives collectors the opportunity to obtain special achievement rewards, connecting esports fans in a model they understand. Collectors digitally accumulate specific card sets over a period of time and then combine them for a special achievement reward, such as a signed jersey or shadowbox cards. In the case of Overwatch, for instance, a shadowbox card could contain a star player’s match-used mouse.
Upper Deck has a long history of helping its partners and sponsors move closer to fans through product launch promotions, giveaways, and event commemoration. For esports, this carries over into Upper Deck’s customized cards, which they’ve dubbed “P-cards.” This is an essential piece of the puzzle in the esports world, where customers expect and demand that brands cater to them. With P-cards, collectors can pick a team jersey, props, and/or a gamer hashtag, for instance, and create their own masterpiece. P-card in hand, the fan goes straight to social media and shares it, driving even more value to the brand.
This personalized experience played well at the KitKat Rivalry Weekend, an Overwatch League event in Los Angeles where Upper Deck first debuted Overwatch fan P-cards. Leading up to and including KitKat weekend, fans created their own customized cards, which helped promote the KitKat brand and the event itself. At the league’s Grand Finals weekend, held in Philadelphia, Upper Deck created hundreds of P-cards that included the presenting sponsor logo. The company also worked with Mitchell & Ness on oversized player auto cards, which fans could pick up exclusively at the Mitchell & Ness store during the special event.
For brands interested in adding esports to their portfolio, the hybrid approach of the Upper Deck/Overwatch model is one to watch. Viewership for esports in 2018 hit 173 million, and a recent report from Statista estimates the potential for the market to reach 351 million viewers by 2023. Within the United States, the report estimates viewership will hit more than 46 million by the same year. The Asia Pacific market continues to be the largest slice of the pie, with over half the world’s total viewership.
While Upper Deck had followed and studied esports for some time, it has only been a year since its licensed esports products hit the market. Collectible cards are a lucrative market with staying power, and through a strategic mix of traditional and futuristic thinking, Upper Deck cracked an esports code in brand marketing.