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Native advertising | How NFL partners broaden their reach through Madden series

  • EA Sports and NFL work in partnership to bring in sponsors to the Madden series
  • Demand outstrips supply due to high interest from current league-level partners
  • Microsoft Surface tablets integrated into gameplay

For most esports properties, the process of on-boarding sponsors – in a niche but growing industry – remains far from straightforward. Even the Kraft Group has found the need to ”educate” potential partners in its Overwatch League franchise Boston Uprising.

For EA Sports’ Madden series, though, the NFL’s principal partners have relished the opportunity to both extend their relationship with the league and engage with the game’s audience.

McDonald’s and Microsoft are heavily involved as in-game sponsors while the likes of Pepsi, Verizon and Hyundai activate locally at competitive Madden events.

Importance of integrated sponsorship

EA and the NFL work together to bring in Madden sponsors – and directly pitch to current league-level partners. For the Madden games, like any other NFL-related product, the league’s 28 primary partners are given the first opportunity to become involved and, thus far, demand has outstripped supply.

“The sponsors that we’ve brought on are NFL partners. We are talking to non-NFL partners only on a limited basis,” says Dave Madden, EA’s head of global brand partnerships. ”There is enough interest from current NFL brands to keep us pretty full.

“It’s primarily sponsorships with some advertising layered in. We are taking a fairly slow-growth approach to it and bringing in brands that are already affiliated with the NFL and on-boarding them to getting, in many cases, their first taste or a deep taste into how to work in the competitive gaming and esports area.

“[These companies] already have investment in the NFL and it’s easy for us to take that relationship and expand on it to a younger demographic and bring to them some opportunities not available to them in traditional broadcasts that are unique to the esports arena. For them it’s a way to expand their audience and reach digital natives that they may not be getting on broadcast TV.”

Each NFL partner has its own account team – of four or five members – whose job is to present commercial opportunities to these brands and then try to customize them to their particular needs.

As esports sponsorship has become an increasingly sophisticated and nuanced affair – with ‘logo slaps’ (a traditional branding placement on a physical object, like a Formula One car) quickly dismissed by gaming’s digitally-savvy audience. Finding a more integrated and unobtrusive approach into the Madden games is considered crucial.

Gamers respond well to brands that bring benefits to the space rather than just themselves and react badly to those who are only in their virtual world for short-term gain.

“There are special moments that are created – replays, highlights ‘brought to you buy’… all the way out to more traditional 15- or 30-second commercial spots that get inserted between plays and actual matches,” says Madden.

Other in-game digital insertions include step and repeat banners (backdrops at public events that provide logo space) behind commentators.

As a case in point, Microsoft uses the game to encourage people to use its Mixer video-streaming platform while Surface tablets can be seen throughout the Madden games.

Formerly known as Beam, Mixer is a new competitor to YouTube Gaming and Twitch as a live-streaming platform. It has a far smaller reach than its rivals at present – with 10 million monthly active users, compared to Twitch’s 100m plus – but offers gamers the chance to make their name in a less crowded space and fans a more interactive experience.

“We have used the Mixer platform to provide some really unique streaming of the broadcast and give people multiple camera angles that they could only have on that platform,” says Madden. ”We also brought Microsoft tablets into the broadcast where on-air talent were actually using these tablets to get their information.

“It’s that kind of integration that creates that connection between real-world football and the video-game experience, which is really authentic and gamers respond really well to it.”

McDonald’s has made a point of showcasing its relationship with the Madden series on the company’s Twitter and Facebook platforms.

“McDonald’s is probably a great example of an NFL partner who has come in and done some really interesting sponsorship with us that essentially enables them to be integrated into the broadcast and then take a lot of the content and use it in their social channels,” Madden adds.

“This gives them a paid and earned mechanic [where users spread branded content themselves] which brands really like and a social footprint that they can go and put out in their channels and create a real association with EA Sports and Madden.

“McDonald’s leveraged every channel of the Madden platform including in-game, onsite, Madden Mobile and Console, and our live tournament broadcast to create a connected and authentic experience with Madden players and viewers.

“They even took it one step further and brought NFL athletes and Madden influencers to the stage to participate in the live broadcast and also curated on-site content to engage their own McDonald’s social community around the tournament broadcast.”

Unique activation opportunities

For NFL partners, getting involved in the Madden games offers them a rare chance to activate both in-season and out-of-season.

“Madden is a huge pipeline to engage our fans,” says David Highhill, the NFL’s director of league strategy. “Every week of the season if the game is Sunday, there are thousands of games being played on Saturdays where people are replicating their team against the team they are playing against.

“There is no better way to have on-demand NFL football if there isn’t a game being played than through Madden – and all the things that come from fandom, and all the energy and engagement that comes from that game is vitally important to us.”

ESPN, Disney and the NFL recently announced a multi-year deal to broadcast two Madden-based leagues: the Club Championship (which features players representing all 32 NFL franchises) and Ultimate League (a one-on-one competition between 16 of the best ‘Madden NFL 18’ players) series.

Audiences on ESPN2 and Disney XD are strong, Highhill believes, because the Madden games are easy to follow for casual fans, which in turns makes sponsorship opportunities more attractive.

The Madden NFL Club Championship that aired on ESPN2 was the most watched eSports broadcast of 2018 for ESPN, averaging 265k viewers and reaching more viewers than Counter-Strike’s Road to Boston major championship.

“When you look at some of the esports titles that are popular, they are either pretty violent when it comes to first-person shooters or there is a really steep learning curve to understand the MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arena) and the ways those games come together,” Highhill adds.

“[Madden is] a great way for brands to get involved with esports with a sports property that has a really broad cultural knowledge, appreciation and understanding domestically. What really helps us is that people can understand the game even if they have never played a single snap in Madden.

“Certain esports, I think, are more naturally situated to draw audiences through linear television and the sports titles can effectively do that as they can capture football fans where they are on our linear platforms but we can also capture gaming fans where they are on the digital streaming sites.”

As well as through multiple broadcast channels – Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Twitch and network TV –  the Madden series also allow sponsors the chance to activate on a local level. Club Championship events, for example, have been held at NFL arenas, the Gillette Stadium, Centurylink Field, the Metlife Stadium and the Hard Rock Stadium, among others.

“Our sponsors between Pepsi, Verizon and Hyundai have all got involved at a local level to support various events – through onsite signage, in-game opportunities, media surrounding the different events,” Highhill adds. “Each of the sponsors is looking at it a bit differently but they are all trying to find the right way that works for them.”

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