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With live sports quieted by the pandemic, chains turn to esports

Chipotle, Buffalo Wild Wings and more are diving into competitive, organized video gaming to build brand engagement among a coveted demographic.
Photo courtesy of Buffalo Wild Wings

Last year, Chipotle Mexican Grill noted that not many restaurant brands were active in esports.

So, the fast-casual chain launched the Chipotle Challenger Series, in which amateur gamers could compete against their favorite pros in organized video gaming competitions.

“We saw an uncrowded space,” said Stephanie Purdue, Chipotle’s vice president of brand marketing. “We saw a real love for Chipotle in that space.”

With live sports greatly minimized by the pandemic, there’s growing interest in esports among restaurant brands looking to capitalize on the coveted under-34 demographic of highly digitally-engaged consumers.

Esports are big business right now. Total viewership of competitive gaming is expected to grow at a 9% compound annual growth rate between 2019 and 2023, up from 454 million viewers last year to a predicted 646 million watchers in 2023, according to estimates from Business Insider Intelligence. The esports market is predicted to surpass $1.5 billion by 2023, according to the research.

Chipotle earlier this week announced a partnership with skateboarding superstar Tony Hawk, giving customers who order Hawk’s favorite burrito access to a demo version of his Pro Skater 1 and 2 video game. On Friday, Hawk will appear on a two-hour livestream from Chipotle’s page on the gaming site Twitch to hand out thousands of free burritos and engage with fans.

Chipotle launched its Twitch channel earlier this year and now has more than 27,000 followers there, the company said.

“Most brands don’t have complete share of voice for three hours in any media channel,” Purdue said. “And our viewership increases over the course of the event … We’ve done media mix modeling and we’ve seen Twitch is driving incremental traffic for Chipotle.”

More chains are getting in on the esports action.

Buffalo Wild Wings this week announced a multi-year partnership with the League of Legends Championship Series esports league. Under the agreement, the biggest matches of the LCS season will be livestreamed at BWW sports bars, with the first event starting Friday.

Livestreams will be administered through BWW’s new OT network and proprietary in-restaurant channel that delivers exclusive content, entertainment and merchandising at the chain’s units around the U.S.

Last September, Buffalo Wild Wings signed a multi-year agreement with casino operator MGM Resorts International and its online sports-gaming division to ease its customers into sports betting.

Food-and-games chain Dave & Buster’s, which has struggled during the pandemic, has talked about showing esports events on its massive “Wow Wall” LED TV screens.

In November, Wingstop announced an online ordering extension through Twitch, to allow customers to continue gaming while creating their wing order. In May, the fast-casual wing chain announced a partnership with esports group Warriors Gaming Squad.

At Chipotle, esports represent a major area of opportunity. The chain works with an outside gaming agency to help craft strategy and find influencers in the esports arena. Last year, the chain hosted in-person esports events. But, thanks to the digital-first nature of esports, there has been little downside to shifting to virtual events because of the coronavirus, Purdue said.

“From a virtual standpoint, we’ve found even more success,” she said. “Physical events are limited to people who can attend the event. And virtual is unlimited … Now, with the void of live sports, this has just become more important.”

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