Everybody loves a roast in good taste.
The ragtag League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK) squad ESC Ever made a splash when it was rebranded in mid-January after picking up restaurant chain sponsor BBQ Chicken in a first-of-its-kind dining/esports team partnership. Ever since then, fans and journalists discussing the newly christened bbq Olivers team have been jockeying to cook up the best poultry puns as the 2017 spring season winds on.
The appeal is instantly apparent: Few team names in esports lend themselves so easily to mild and inoffensive fun, and the last time the scene had this much of a blast was when Galaxy Note 7s were the bomb and Samsung's LCK team ran all the way to the grand finals of the 2016 World Championship.
BBQ Chicken parent company Genesis BBQ and the Korean e-Sports Association's official press release (Korean) played a large role in making the team name go viral. According to the announcement, the team is called bbq Olivers (instead of, say, BBQ Chicken or Genesis BBQ) because of the chain's pride in purportedly being the first among its peers to use 100 percent extra virgin olive oil to cook its signature dish. This unusual origin story had fans across the world laughing out loud as they scratched their heads.
But the team and its sponsors are loving the attention.
As ESC CEO Seong Song told ESPN, "We have monitored foreign reactions to the sponsorship through routes such as Reddit and are quite pleased at the fans' humorous reception. We think it's a great positive."
While many South Korean teams have professed to enjoy hearing about favorable overseas reactions to their endeavors, the admission of directly monitoring English-language forums is something new. "While the Genesis BBQ Group is a [South] Korean corporation, it also conducts business abroad -- in 57 countries, in fact," Song explained. "The company was very interested about the global exposure the sponsorship could generate, especially in North America and China. LCK's international reach heavily factored into our discussions."
Some optimists might consider this news the herald of a new era for LCK in which even non-Korean sponsors would want to invest in South Korean teams to earn global renown. Song was hesitant to agree with this assessment, however, stressing that domestic exposure still took priority.
While BBQ Chicken specifically might seem like an odd franchise to partner with, the move actually comes at a key time for this particular food. Over the past decade, South Korea has built up an ever-growing national infatuation with fried chicken. South Korean fried chicken has a special place in the average citizen's consumption patterns, as the menu's price hits the sweet spot between costly and reasonable for a satisfying snack -- just enough to feel like a regularly affordable small treat for the night. In 2013, the number of fried chicken joints in the country was estimated to be over 36,000 (Korean), larger than the number of McDonald's worldwide (35,429) the same year.
Watching a sporting event at home with a box of hot delivery chicken is very popular among virtually all age groups in the country, and it is this crowd that BBQ's sponsorship primarily targets. As such, while international esports fans have been busy celebrating the absurdity of a rooster in a steel combat helmet "displaying toughness, fighting spirit and courage," South Korean fans and players actually have taken most of their attention to a novel perk: free delivery chicken.
The bbq Olivers team boasts a quality-of-life agreement with its sponsor. "We used to order a lot of fried chicken anyway to our practice rooms," Song explained, "so BBQ offered to take care of that for the players." Since entering the scene, BBQ has also shared chicken with the LCK live audience and even other LCK teams like SK Telecom T1 on several occasions. It's clear that these gestures are greatly appreciated.
Despite the festive external buzz surrounding the new sponsorship, Song remained grounded regarding the team's chances in the world's most competitive League of Legends professional league. He was quick to admit that the squad lacked strength on paper but was adamant in his belief in the players' potential.
"Most of our team is young and growing. Internally, we are hoping we can develop enough over the season to make the playoffs," the CEO said. "If things don't work out that well, then our corrected objective will be avoiding relegations.
Whenever bbq Olivers suffers a loss, the general crowd seems more concerned with sharing new jokes than ruffling the distraught players' feathers. Considering how negative South Korean fans often can become toward teams that don't live up to expectations, and how difficult it can be for players to deal with the backlash, this could turn out to be a significant competitive advantage. It will be interesting to see what other surprises are in store for the team, sponsor and fans.