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Honda latches onto video game sponsorship to attract first-time car buyers

League of Legends
Teams compete in the League of Legends Championship Series in Los Angeles.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Honda Motor Co. is pumping more marketing dollars into competitive video gaming to protect its status as the dominant carmaker among young, first-time buyers.

The Japanese auto giant is becoming the official automaker of Riot Games Inc.’s League of Legends Championship Series, one of North America’s biggest esports leagues. The news comes eight months after Honda signed a partnership with Team Liquid, a three-time league champion.

Honda’s goal is to meet young consumers on their own terms. The global esports audience is more than 450 million people, according to analysis firm Newzoo, and North America represents the largest market. That group is largely young, tech-savvy consumers who don’t interact with marketing in the same way as their older peers.

They’re also a valuable commodity in the automotive world. Millennials and Gen Z are the only generations increasing their share of car sales right now, and Honda is well positioned with those groups. Its Civic and Accord models are the top-selling vehicles for first-time buyers, according to the company.

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“These younger audiences that we’re trying to reach really prefer esports and social media over more traditional media,” said Phil Hruska, manager of media strategy at American Honda. “We look at these deals as a social media platform, which is a great evolution of where the eyeballs are going.”

Unlike traditional sports leagues, which make the bulk of their money from media rights and ticket sales, corporate partnerships remain a major source of income for esports teams and leagues. Honda joins a growing list of sponsors for Riot’s North American league, including Mastercard Inc., State Farm Life Insurance Co., Walmart Inc. and Quicken Loans Inc.’s Rocket Mortgage.

“We really try to find brands that are investing in this space, and don’t just see esports as checking a box,” said Matthew Archambault, Riot’s North American head of esports partnerships and business development. “Honda is looking to invest, commit resources and go into storytelling.”

The partnership will launch this weekend with the league’s Summer Split playoffs in Los Angeles. Riot and Honda will work together on a digital behind-the-scene documentary series, plus traditional on-site advertising that will feature wrapped cars outside the venue. Honda, which has been investing in gaming since 2014, is also paying for naming rights to the championship series’ most valuable player award.

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The announcement comes just a few days after the esports and gaming industries reacted vociferously to politicians — including President Trump — referencing violent video games as a potential inspiration for mass shooters in the U.S. Though League of Legends is more fantasy game than shooter, Archambault said he didn’t believe video games were part of the problem.

“I’m not speaking on behalf of Riot as a whole, but I don’t believe there have been any credible studies that have linked video games to bad behavior,” he said. “In fact, we’ve seen studies about it helping camaraderie and communication, and I know for a fact that a lot of veterans play games to overcome PTSD. There are a lot of positives that gaming in general can bring.”


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