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XLIVE Interview Series
XLIVE Interview Series - Luke Zelon - TSM.jpg

XLIVE Interview Series – Luke Zelon – Team SoloMid

This week on the XLIVE Interview Series we sat down with Luke Zelon, Director of Partnerships at Team SoloMid (TSM).

TSM is a 6X League of Legends champion and holds the title as the most winning esports team in LCS history.  We spoke to Luke about a number of topics, from his background in traditional sports, what traditional sports can learn from esports, the new TSM training facility, and more.  Read the full interview below!

Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us today, Luke.  For those who don’t know, can you give us a brief overview of TSM, the team’s background, and share how TSM differentiates itself from other esports organizations?

TSM started as a League of Legends strategy guide blog before becoming one of the first professional League of Legends teams and has evolved into a leading esports org that participates in six competitive games, manages some of the most popular gaming influencers and continues to be a leader in the digital strategy guide and coaching market. Through this layered approach, TSM is able to engage with esports fans, gaming enthusiasts and even breaks through into mainstream pop culture. This has led TSM to have the largest following in esports while still maintaining industry leading engagement.

You've worked on the athlete representation side, traditional sports team side, and brand marketing agency side prior to joining TSM. Can you talk about how these experiences have helped you at TSM and in your current role?

Each of these experiences have taught me about the unique goals and incentives that drive the decision making for each stakeholder and specifically, how each communicates with brands.

It’s hard for a lot of people to understand what esports is if they don’t play games or watch Twitch and it’s important to be able to “translate” how the industry functions to these stakeholders. Having been on the player, team, and agency side has really helped me during the conversations with brands because I understand the information they are interested in during every step of the conversation.

TSM has only been a forward facing, outbound partnerships organization for about a year now. Can you talk a bit about how TSM was successful before that point and what the new structure means?

First and foremost, Andy and team have built one of the top brands in esports in terms of reach, engagement and community sentiment so it should be of no surprise that some of the first non-endemic brands to break into the space (GEICO, Dr Pepper, Chipotle) saw TSM as a property that can drive results. Now, we are showing other non-endemic brands that esports can be a powerful marketing ecosystem and that TSM is the best vehicle within the industry to partner with because of the expertise and professionalism we bring when activating partnerships.

What are some of the common misconceptions traditional brands may have before entering into an esports partnership, and how can those concerns be alleviated?  What pitfalls can brands avoid when working with esports organizations?

ROI measurement is a huge concern for a lot of the brands I speak to which actually surprised me at first. The benefit to esports is that we can accurately track and compare impressions and engagements to past posts, competitors’ posts, etc. because most of the activations exist digitally. However, unlike linear TV where Nielsen is the accepted rating system used across the industry, a similar system doesn’t exist, or better put, hasn’t been agreed upon by advertisers and properties.

Our solution to this is to work with several data partners and constantly provide brand partners with quantitative and qualitative activation reports, quarterly reviews and annual reviews that provide transparency into each activation and aspect of the partnership.

How is the structure of partnerships in esports different than traditional sports? How is it the same?

A major component of traditional sports partnerships are on-site experiential activations and hospitality packages because the teams are producing and operating events regularly. Esports teams don’t host events on a regular basis and experiential and hospitality assets are often major decision making factors for certain brands. We are looking to bridge that gap by hosting several fan events in the future because we know there is value to fans and brands in fun, entertaining live events.

However, esports provides instant, scalable access to fans because of the digital nature of the industry (social, streaming, content). Brands that understand and take advantage of this have been successful like our partners at Chipotle and Nerf. We use these partnerships as case studies for how other brands can successfully enter and activate partnerships in this industry.

At the end of the day, understanding the brand, their products/services and aligning that with the fan and team’s brand is the most important thing - that remains the same across traditional and esports.

What are important things to know for brands wanting to get involved in a partnership with an esports property, what questions should a brand ask, and what answers should they expect to receive?

I think a lot can be said for understanding the fanbase of the property partner a brand is assessing but I’ll take it a step further and say the property has to know who their fans are and have a keen understanding of how to engage and communicate with their fans. Each game title has a unique fanbase and the touchpoints, both analog and digital, that teams, influencers and leagues have with fans are quite unique to those communities. Not all properties have strong relationships with their fans and it manifests in the success of the marketing activations (video views, social engagement, etc).

I’d say brands should be sure to understand the property’s content strategy, activation capabilities and growth plan. Brands should look for properties that know their audience and their overall strategy is aligned with the content fans want to consume.

There has been much discussion about how esports organizations can learn and benefit from the best practices of traditional sports teams, but how can traditional sports teams learn and benefit from esports orgs?

Developing a content strategy that focuses on entertainment that includes live streaming will be the next revenue driver for traditional sports teams, directly and indirectly. There are still many teams that flood their YouTube pages with post game press conference clips and only generate thousands, sometimes hundreds of views. I don’t think enough traditional sports teams understand the value of YouTube and live streaming platforms for creating another touchpoint to engage with their fans and win mindshare.

TSM has plans for a new training facility.  Can you discuss the goals for the facility, and how this will impact the team’s success moving forward?

TSM’s Performance Facility will open in Q4 of this year and we’re excited about the enhancements it will bring to all areas of TSM by focusing on Performance, Innovation, and Content. The facility will serve as a training space for several of TSM’s competitive teams (separate from their housing), multiple streaming set ups for influencers, a fully equipped content production studio, a live event space with broadcast capabilities, a players’ lounge, and work space for the web development staff and front office personnel. This will give our players and influencers the best opportunity to perform competitively and to create high quality content for fans.

With the rapid growth of the esports industry, what concerns do you have about the continued growth? Is esports growing too fast right now to be sustainable?

I’m not concerned about the rapid growth but I do think the growth will slow. Because we operate digitally and fans are located around the world, the ceiling is higher than many traditional sports ecosystems.

Thanks again for your time today, Luke.  For those who want to learn more, how can they get in touch with you and with TSM?

Always available by email: [email protected] and you can find TSM on all social media platforms @TSM or tsm.gg.

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