The Licensing Updates and Trends You Need to Know

by REYNE RICE, co-president ITMA, global trend hunter/ToyTrends

Let’s be honest: kids love esports. They are increasingly watching and engaging with esports brands, teams, and players. Add in the popularity of sports licensing for older fans — including tweens, teens, and adults — and it is no wonder that esports is one of the fastest-growing segments of the licensing industry.

Although sports licensing has been around for more than 20 years, video gaming and competitive championship viewing via streaming channels, such as Twitch and YouTube, has raised esports’ worldwide visibility in the past few years. There are many genres of esports, covering everything from football, soccer, and race car driving — both Formula One and NASCAR — to professional video-gaming battle leagues, such as League of Legends, Fortnite, and Overwatch. The increased online streaming of championship video game leagues is helping to raise esports licensing awareness to new heights. In fact, a 16-year-old boy named Kyle Giersdorf (who goes by the nickname “Bugha”) won the Fortnite World Cup last month, taking home a $3 million bounty in the individual competition and becoming the No. 1 Fortnite player in the world.

“For the first time in generations, we are witnessing the birth of a new genre of esports: the video-gaming competitive championship era,” says Daniel Siegel, head of esports licensing at Activision Blizzard Entertainment.

At Licensing Expo in Las Vegas, Siegel presented a case study on esports licensing based on key learnings from last year’s inaugural season for Overwatch League (OWL), Activision Blizzard’s first city-based global professional esports league. The Overwatch League will expand to 20 global teams this year, up from its inaugural 12 international teams last year.

Activision Blizzard’s new licensing partnership with Fanatics is expected to grow its merchandising clout for licensed apparel and accessories exponentially. The deal will increase merchandising sales from products available exclusively at live events last year through an expansion to online and brick-and-mortar retail store distribution channels across North America and international territories this year. Likewise, other esports teams are also reaching into the online and retail store channels to expand their scope into all fan wallets. Special, event-exclusive merchandise is still a fan dream and a coveted badge of honor, only now even the more frugal fans can wear their team loyalty proudly.

Esports licensing is indeed different from video game licensing. Siegel compared the two segments in this way: Video game licensing is focused on the fictional world surrounding the gameplay experience, while esports licensing is centered upon the nonfiction aspect of the esports video-gaming experience — the teams, the team logos, the real-world individual professional players, and the brand connections.


1. Online esports gaming is also growing in offline entertainment venues. Although esports is essentially about digitizing the gaming experience, local esports leagues are adding to the entertainment value and fandom experience of attending localized tournaments and supporting hometown esports teams. Local teams also compete in a global esports arena, and the growth of the live, offline viewership fan base adds to the already rapidly increasing online viewership numbers. Both are being monetized and growing the revenue streams for esports franchises.

2. Merchandising and licensing opportunities in esports video gaming are expanding. From products exclusively available at local tournaments to a wider distribution across online and retail channels, there is more availability to a broader fan base.

3. Within esports, there are multiple layers of fan engagement: team loyalty, individual player loyalty, and the intense connection with the brand. The future of localized fandom will use media content centered upon teams, leagues, individual players, and live tournaments to help develop unique stories and powerful, authentic connections.

Although teams who challenge each other play in fast-paced championships, each of the individual players add their customized and calculated spin on the team play experience. Individual talent is measured by the tools and tactics each player employs in the gaming competitions, their risk-taking quotient, and their quirky personalities. Speed, accuracy, and performing under pressure are all key factors to success, and each player brings their unique set of abilities, strengths, and weaknesses to the team — and the game. Fans recognize and reward their favorites with loyalty.

4. The influencer gamer is the next generation of broadcaster for many fans. For example, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, a Fortnite pro gamer and influencer, is heralded as the No. 1 fastest-growing esports influencer on YouTube, Instagram, and Streamer, and was named “the Biggest Gamer in the World” by ESPN the Magazine last September. With more than 10 hours of daily interaction with his 40-million-strong fan base, Ninja is a serious trendsetter.

Ninja Gold — Extra Rare Figure, from Wicked Cool Toys

The toy industry has already jumped on this influencer trend for esports gaming. Wicked Cool Toys is the master toy and collectible partner (excluding blasters) for Ninja. The company launched a comprehensive line of play and display collectible figures and emotes, vinyl figures, plush, mystery boxes, accessories, and games. ZURU has forged a partnership with Ninja, expanding its X-Shot blaster range. This alliance combines the popularity of Ninja’s devoted fans with the innovative design and value of the X-Shot blaster range, providing unique accessories and customization, and capitalizing on a key element of the Fortnite gaming experience. Funko created Funko Pop! Vinyl figures for League of Legends, Overwatch, and Fortnite, and it was rumored at Licensing Expo that individual team player Funko Pop! Figures might be on the horizon for this year. Stay tuned!

5. Emerging technologies, such as virtual reality and augmented reality, will offer new experiences and incredible live-viewing moments for fans. Asia is recognized as a world leader in incorporating innovative tech into live esports experiences. It has used holograms of in-game players to bring characters to life, utilized AR dragons flying above the audience at live arena events, and showcased a live performance of K/DA (a virtual K-pop girl group consisting of four themed versions of League of Legends in-game characters) at the Legends World Championship opening ceremony last year.

With AR, VR, and mixed media technologies becoming more prevalent, and more affordable, we can expect other global venues to add these exciting components to the live viewership experience.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of the Toy Book.

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