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Could China’s LPL become Nike’s first sponsored esports league?

Move comes after Chinese star Uzi became the first esports athlete featured in a Nike ad

This article originally appeared on ABACUS

If there’s still any debate as to whether esports is a real sport, one of the biggest names in athletic apparel might have put it to rest. Nike is apparently negotiating a sponsorship deal for China’s League of Legends Pro League (LPL).

The potential deal was first reported by Chinese media Lazy Bear Sports and later confirmed by The Esports Observer. If true, the agreement -- which would allow Nike to sponsor the game day apparel of all LPL players, coaching staff, and team managers -- would mark the US company’s first foray into sponsoring an esports league.
Gamers are excited. A Reddit user wrote, “We sports now boys!”
This is what a Nike-sponsored esports jersey could look like. (Picture: Weibo/Lazy Bear Sports)
Esports fans from other League of Legends regional leagues are green with envy. Esports-pro-turned-commentator Cloudtemplar from the League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK) said, “The LCK is so f***ing jealous.”

League of Legends, the esports giant

But he also praised LPL at the same time, “Such a big deal is expected for the number one region in the world”.

But they might want to hold their excitement for a bit. While Lazy Bear Sports first reported that this would be a 5-year deal worth US$144 million, The Esports Observer disputed the amount, citing multiple sources.
The Esports Observer said Nike is struggling to close the deal as some teams already have existing apparel partners, with others looking to sign apparel deals in the future.

We reached out to Riot Games, the developer of League of Legends, and will update the story when we hear back.

Even if the deal does materialize, Nike won’t be LPL’s first Western sponsor. They've partnered with Mercedes-Benz, Doritos, Intel, HP, L’Oreal and KFC in the past.

Some esports fans are wondering why esports leagues in the West don’t have the same luck.

“How come American companies like Nike and KFC among others sponsor LPL yet don’t sponsor the NA LCS (North America League Championship Series)? Is it perhaps LPL is more marketable? I've been curious about it for a while,” a Reddit user wrote.
Esports is an especially lucrative business in China. Earlier this month, more than 200 million people in China watched as Invictus Gaming became the first Chinese team to win the League of Legends Worlds Championship in its 9th season. That’s double the number of people who tuned in for the Super Bowl LII (52).

A Nike deal with LPL wouldn’t be entirely out of the blue.

Just a month ago, China’s esports star Uzi became the first esports athlete to appear in a Nike ad, debuting as part of LeBron James’ “Dribble &” campaign.
RNG superstar Jian “Uzi” Zihao failed to carry his team through the quarterfinals of the League of Legends World Championship. (Photo: Nike/Weibo)

Uzi, the Shaquille O'Neal of Chinese esports

Now esports fans around the world are hoping for more. After hearing about LPL’s potential deal with Nike, a fan of the LEC (League of Legends European Championship) created a mockup of what Adidas-sponsored LEC jerseys would look like.
Esports jerseys have always been meh. But if these became the real deal, I'll totally get myself a few. (Picture: Imgur)

League of Legends World Championship returns to China in 2020

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.