The making of Canada’s newest e-sports brand: Toronto Ultra

Toronto Ultra is the newest Canadian brand in the fast-growing e-sports landscape, with a new team joining the Call of Duty league launching early next year.

The team is owned by OverActive Media (OAM) which also has teams in two of world’s largest e-sports leagues: Toronto Defiant in the Overwatch League, and a team in the League of Legends European Championship.

By now, many marketers are aware of the rising popularity of team-based video gaming among middle and younger millennials and Gen Z, but it’s worth noting just how popular it has become: Revenue is expected to hit $1.1 billion this year, a 27% increase from the year before. In 2016, seven U.S. colleges had e-sports teams. Today there are more than 130, giving more than $15 million in e-sports scholarships.

Call of Duty, meanwhile, is a favourite gaming franchise with the demo. Earlier this month, OAM released a survey of Ontarians 13-49 that found it is the most popular gaming title among those 13-37, with interest in a Call of Duty league among that demo equal to that of Major League Soccer at 11% (the NBA was tops at 28%, with the NHL second at 23% and NFL third at 19%).

Bell is currently the Ultra’s only sponsor, after buying a minority stake in OverActive Media in June and becoming the company’s first marketing partner. (In July, Canon signed on as official camera and official streaming camera for OAM’s Toronto Defiant team.)

The Ultra team name, along with the team roster, branding and mascot (an albino squirrel) was announced last week at an event that drew 1,500 e-sports fans to a popular Toronto nightclub, and included a performance by local rapper Nav.

The team branding was developed by Toronto agency Diamond.

“It’s very tough to reach this demographic as a marketer,” said agency partner Josh Diamond. The launch event, which blended music and gaming, attracted 1,500 people. “It is really at the forefront of culture, that’s really the power of it,” he said.

In some ways the process for launching an e-sports brand is like that of any brand or sports franchise, said Diamond. “You really have got to understand your consumer.”

The difference for e-sports is that because it is new in comparison to established spectator sports, many of its most ardent fans feel they have built it. “You get people who want to not only understand and be part of the process, but want to help shape where it’s going,” he said. “Every single step of the way, we made sure we had the voices of the passionate gaming or passionate e-sports fan who has really lived and breathed it their whole life.”

Many millennials and Gen Z aren’t just gamers, but feel that gaming is part of their identify, said Diamond.

“When we’re talking about identity… that’s really something brands need to understand. You’re going to create something that they’ll most likely grab a sticker of and put it on their [gaming] console, wear a hoodie, talk about it in their everyday life. So the stakes are high.”

For Diamond, meeting those lofty e-sports expectations began with an agency team that was passionate about the space—people who speak the language and really understand it, he said. The agency also worked with OAM to build a panel of fans and consumers who were updated on the brand development—everything from names and colours to brand visuals—using their feedback as the most important measure of what they were doing. “This panel, from a hierarchy perspective, they’re number one,” said Diamond.

“Building a brand identity that was unapologetically unique while appealing to a mass audience was our end goal,” said Mike Armstrong, OAM’s vice-president, global head of marketing in a release. “The careful use of a panel including Call of Duty World League fans, the general population, and our players ensured we stayed fan-centric and confident throughout the process.”

One of the other important objectives was to create a team brand that reflected the players and fans themselves, rather than the violence at the core of the game. (And be more appealing to sponsors.)

It is a violent game, but people play it to relax and to be entertained, said Diamond. So a light-hearted brand with humour and wit woven throughout is perfectly fine for fans (that personality comes across in the video to introduce the team below).

The most obvious manifestation of the approach is the albino squirrel as the team mascot—a very Toronto reference to the rare squirrel occasionally spotted in the city’s Trinity Bellwoods Park.

One of the creative inspirations for the brand was comic book superhero Deadpool. “A hero who is incredibly good at their job, who is well liked, but doesn’t take himself too seriously,” said Diamond. “[He] goes against the convention of what you would expect a superhero to be, and so we really wanted to go against the convention of what we expected an e-sports brand to be.”

For its inaugural season, the Call of Duty league will have 12 teams from the U.S., Canada, France, and England. The CDL gets underway Jan. 24 in Minnesota, in an 8,400-seat venue with all 12 teams competing in three-day event.

David Brown