Xbox has inked a deal with YouTuber football team XO FC ahead of the EE Wembley Cup – diversifying its approach to sports sponsorship in a move that will see it go beyond sticking its logo on a kit and instead work with influencers to connect with fans.
As part of the partnership, Xbox will also be integrated into a four-part series on XO’s YouTube channel as the team’s first official sponsor, driving buzz for its 550,000 subscribers in the run up to the 25 November tournament.
The Microsoft-owned brand still sees the value in the big ticket partnership and sponsorship deals it has with the likes of La Liga and Real Madrid. However, according to its head of consumer media Ryan Miles, working with influencers to tap into a football-mad audience on YouTube is about something different altogether.
“We do this kind of things because we think it’s a really nice way for us to show up without taking over the content. It’s more about connecting with the audience than it is about being an over the top advertising piece.
“These kind of events have become so big, the Wembley Cup in particular has been hugely successful and content creators like XO have these hugely passionate followings that connect with them not just around the event, but all year round.”
Following on from the launch of the Xbox One X and Xbox One S consoles in 2017, Xbox wants to maintain hype and excitement with the series as well as tapping into EE's wider audience of 16 to 24-year-olds who are interested in the tournament.
Miles said there's "no silver bullet" when it comes to measuring the success of the experiment. Getting eyeballs on the content, brand affinity and relevance are all important.
Now in its fourth year, the EE Cup will see legends like Cafu and David Trezeguet dust off their boots for one day only to compete at the London tournament, which pits international football luminaries against YouTubers.
It's broadcast on YouTube via one of the influencers' accounts (this year it's Spencer FC) as well as on EE's site and fans can also buy tickets to watch it live. Last year 2 million tuned in online and Wembley housed 35,000.
11-man football rules apply but there are some twists – four teams will in three 30-minute matches to contest the trophy.
The squads are comprised of top-level creators, who have a reach 36 million fans between them thanks to their YouTube channels. They include Hashtag United, captained by Spencer Owen of Spencer FC fame; returning side F2 FC; newcomers Rebel FC and, finally, the underdog XO FC.
XO FC comprises YouTube pros and pitch amateurs True Geordie, WillNE, Stephen Tries, Laurence McKenna and more,
Xbox-sponsored content on the channel will be focused on how the team is preparing for the cup. While it's clear the content is supported by the brand, the products themselves will be woven in seamlessly - for instance, the first video in the series shows the True Geordie chatting about the forthcoming event and playing the Xbox while some gameplay appears on screen.
"I don't think we ever looked too closely at whether they are to win or not in terms of the competition itself," admitted Miles.
"It's more about the fact that everyone can have a go and we loved the idea that you don't need to be a professional, it's not about being an elite athlete but getting in there and having some fun and enjoying the contest."
The XO channel itself was founded earlier this year by football social media marketing network Ball Street, has rivaled the likes of Copa90 by tapping into the growing popularity of fan-run channels and their ability to offer brands an alternative to traditional sports media.
To create XO, the business (which is spearheaded by ex-Talk Sport exec Matt Wilson) brought together the likes of True Geordie (1.4 million subscribers), WillNE (1.7 million subscribers) and Stephen Tries (625,000 subscribers) with the goal of producing original content for sports fans exploring football culture through original documentaries, podcasts, vlogs and interviews.
Amid greater scrutiny around how influencers badge content online, XO has built its pitch to brands on being transparent with its young, chiefly male audience. So far the likes of Nike, EA Sports and Beats have bought into it.
This unusual level of honesty has resonated with football lovers who are invested in the journeys of the True Geordie et al.
When XO ran a podcast backed by Dollar Shave Club earlier this year, the comments were telling: 'somehow the sponsor is more enjoyable with a skit' and 'get Stephen into advertising 'cause he's absolsutely sold that Dollar Shave Club promo.'
“We're excited about this sponsorship as it aligns the brand with the key passion point of football in an original way," said Xbox's Miles.
In terms of production, Xbox's social and creative teams did sit in a room with the influencers to talk about the best way to integrate products, but it gave them as much "freedom" as possible.
"I think content and brand are like church and state, there's got to be a really careful blend of one and the other, if the brand dictates too much then the content won't resonate with the audience.
"The creators, those guys know what works for the audience, at the same time you have to find the most organic and relevant way for the brand to be part of that. If it's not a perfect fit it's better not to do and go down a more traditional avenue."