Esports meets mainstream: Looking back on Bud Light's failed entry into esports one year later

by Daniel Rosen May 23 2017
Thumbnail image courtesy of Contributed

One year ago, Bud Light had the opportunity to change the esports sponsorship landscape, and they completely messed it up.

Bud Light’s esports All-Stars program was made up of a series of the kinds of mistakes that could only be made by a company completely out of touch with the esports community. But going beyond the fact that it was a poorly thought out, poorly implemented mess of a promotion, it may have set back the growth of adult content sponsors in esports in a way that we haven’t been able to comprehend until getting a whole year out from the failure.

For those that don’t remember (or didn’t know about it) Bud Light ran a promotion in May and June 2016 where they asked esports fans to vote which of twenty players across five different games would become Bud Light All-stars. What that meant at the time was pretty unclear, but eventually turned out to be a whole lot of nothing. The players did some promo work, wore some hats and got custom cars. The whole thing blew over after a few months, and Bud Light’s presence in esports has all but disappeared ever since.

There were plenty of problems with the approach, between the relatively low impact players Bud Light selected for the fan vote and the fact that it was a fan vote for a sponsorship in the first place, but that’s all been discussed enough over the past year. Instead, let’s think about the implications of Bud Light’s failed attempt to break into esports and why it didn’t work out.

The implications are the most interesting part, because not only did Bud Light not stick around, no other major, non-endemic adult content sponsor has come into esports since. YouPorn is really the only other one we have, and they are by no means a popularly accepted organization (nor are their players and teams a particularly big deal within esports). Again, part of that must have to do with the fact that esports fans are quite young, but the two must be able to coexist somehow. There are games, like CS:GO and Street Fighter, that skew a little older and have had interest from adult content sponsors in the past, including Bud Light. But the reaction to and failure of Bud Light’s campaign may have scared sponsors like that away for good.

Bud Light, as part of Anheuser-Busch, is one of the biggest beer brands in the United States, and already has huge partners in professional sports. Bud Light will sponsor the NFL through the 2022 Super Bowl, the MLB through the 2018 season and, despite a particularly pointed John Oliver skit, still sponsors the FIFA World Cup. They are an enormous sponsor in the world of traditional sports, and theoretically, they could easily be that in esports as well. Bud Light could have sponsored Team SoloMid for a year and been done with it. But they didn’t.

Bud Light had to have known that the core esports audience skews young, often too young to buy alcohol, but as we’ve seen before that isn’t a core issue for a lot of big name, non-endemic sponsors in the space right now. Companies like Audi and Geico are still here, despite the fact that young people do not buy cars. They’re in it for the mind share, to keep esports fans aware of their brands once they’re in a position where they can buy a car and insurance.

In retrospect, the problem was twofold. On one hand, a large amount of esports fans are not of drinking age in the United States, Bud Light’s key market. On the other, Bud Light’s poorly thought out marketing campaign killed a lot of the potential hype that non-endemics have traditionally brought into esports when they show up.

Bud Light’s promotional pages associated with the campaign are all down, and while all the YouTube videos are still up, Bud Light’s YouTube page is inaccessible. Part of that is that they likely don’t want anyone seeing the embarrassingly bad stuff, like their cringe-inducingly awkward stage show at DreamHack Austin 2016, but it says a lot that Bud Light didn’t even want some of that content to remain up in a historical context.

A new banner on their Twitter page states: "New Year. New All-Stars. May 25, 2017." It's not yet clear what they intend to do in 2017, but it appears they will run some sort of campaign this summer. theScore esports has reached out to Bud Light for details.

It’s possible that esports isn’t ready for an alcohol sponsor. Personally, I’d rather not see them at all, but you can’t ignore how much money they could bring into the scene. The issue seems to be that esports is just too young of an audience on top of being a very insular industry. Bud Light may have messed up their entrance, but they didn’t have to leave as quickly as they did. Esports did not accept Bud Light, and if we can’t accept Bud Light, then what hope does a smaller alcohol brand have of trying to get involved themselves?

Grade: F — A failing grade has not been handed out in this series yet, but Bud Light truly does deserve it. Their failure to execute on a relatively simple sponsorship campaign was not only a disaster for the company’s attempts to get involved in esports, but it seems like it may have dashed any hopes for adult content sponsors getting involved in esports. Bud Light’s failure resonated beyond just the mistakes they made in the moment, and that truly deserves an F.

Correction: A previous version of this article implied that Bud Light had left the esports scene, however based on their updated Twitter banner, it appears the brand planned to launch a new campaign in 2017. theScore esports regrets the error and has reached out to Bud Light for clarification.

Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. He prefers Bud Light Lime, though would really just rather drink anything else. You can follow him on Twitter.