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League of Legends

The Role of Players in Brand Loyalty

Nikhil Kalro

For a long time, imagining Marcin “Jankos” Jankowski in any other team apart from G2 Esports was inconceivable. After all, the 26-year-old Polish veteran and successful jungler is among the most senior players in the League of Legends sphere. When a player is associated with a team for as long as Jankos has been with G2, it’s almost a given that he’d in all probability retire there. Nicknamed the “First Blood King”, Jankos is renowned for his outstanding early game aggression and playmaking abilities. His ability to excel on early game champions like Lee Sin and Elise makes him a standout. Jankos can also juggle three lanes and the enemy jungler with manic precision and a sixth sense for the map. These are qualities any team would kill to have. If Riot were to institute a hall of fame for LoL, it is likely Jankos will be among the first inductees. Such has been his profound impact in the league and in esports at large. Now, it has emerged that one of the longest-standing members at G2’s current roster is leaving the club after five eventful years. It’s just another validation of how Jankos is cut from a different cloth. When the moment arrives, with battle lines drawn in his final game for the team, it truly will mark the end of an era, a defining one for G2 and for LoL at large, even if his retirement is far from imminent. Jankos is open to offers and is currently exploring his options for the upcoming season. If and when he signs up with another team, it’ll be as significant a moment in that team’s history as it will be another leap for Jankos. The overarching sentiment, though, among G2 fans will perhaps be ‘never say never’, for they would give anything to see him back with the team at a later stage. How soon? We don’t know. Will it ever be possible? No answers, again. But it’s the hope that will keep them fluttering.

jankos g2

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 14: Marcin "Jankos" Jankowski of G2 Esports competes at the League of Legends World Championship Groups Stage on October 14, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Lance Skundrich/Riot Games)

However, one thing is for sure. History is replete with several high-profile instances in sport, of legends leaving a club only to return ‘home’ at a later stage. To cite just one example: think back to France’s football great Thierry Henry returning to Arsenal after three trophy-laden years at Barcelona and two more in New York.

This isn’t to say Jankos will return. It’s entirely possible he may be extremely happy elsewhere, setting benchmarks for his new teams to emulate, and maybe setting benchmarks he’d want to emulate at a personal level. But it remains just one of several possibilities.

All said, it’s no secret as to how loyalty and brand building go hand-in-hand. While it isn’t wrong for a player to want to strive for something bigger or look for greener pastures, it certainly doesn’t help a brand leverage its status when a player of high calibre leaves the organisation after several successful years.

Especially if they happen to have credentials like Jankos, who has grown from strength to strength since entering the professional scene in 2013 as a gangly teenager. Since 2018, his career has seen several highs. From winning the Rift Rival Trophy that year to being part of the EU Regional Finals to winning five LEC titles to winning the MSI in 2019 and securing the finals of the Worlds the same year, he’s done it all.

Which is why to many in the fraternity, G2 is Jankos and Jankos is G2. The two have been synonymous with each other for half-a-decade. This is why his exit now can be as tough on him as it is on the team, even if the team may know they’ve done everything to retain his services. Certain brands that now associate with the team have enjoyed return on their investments because of player association too. Now, with Jankos stepping away, will brands follow suit? It could yet make for a fascinating case study.

After all, for a decade now, Jankos has been an epitome of credibility. When he leaves a successful outfit to pursue other interests, perhaps with other teams, it’s natural for prospective sponsors to wait before committing themselves to G2. Or maybe it’s an opportunity to renegotiate their financial deal in Jankos’s absence. Either way, the full impact of his leaving will only be felt when he signs with a new team, whenever that may be.

As you would expect, the speculation has just begun. Will he stay in Europe or will he contemplate a move to North America? How about Jankos joining an Asian outfit? Will language be a barrier if that is the case? Will he be better off being a player-mentor as compared to just a professional? Does he envisage a change of roles? How will new teams embrace his arrival? How do players from other teams warm-up to the possibility of Jankos being in their midst, and perhaps take the limelight – not of his making – away from them? These are questions that are bound to spring up, naturally.

No matter what, it can be hard to disassociate certain players with certain teams. Even if Jankos jokes of “smashing them” if he ever comes up against G2 in the future. Just like how it’s hard to look beyond Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok and Lee “Gumayusi” Min-hyeong when you talk about the great Korean outfit T1.

They have been incredibly successful in LoL, and their prominence has led to flashpoints and online mobs with fans when they have slipped up. Remember how players have in the past spoken about personal attacks while taking it in stride? The incidents from earlier in the year, where families of certain players, Faker’s in particular, were abused, brought out the worst side of the game. The overwhelming sentiment now has moved from tolerance and pleas for better behaviour to fighting fire with fire. At the time, while this brought T1 into the limelight for reasons other than sport, it inspired the community at large in unimaginable ways.

Okay, the reason for digressing a bit was to just underline how a team that went to any lengths to stand by their players was enough to convince sponsors and prospective stakeholders to invest in the team and associate long-term with people they believed would usher in a revolution. No wonder T1 continue to enjoy the patronage of fans and sponsors the world over, being one of the most followed and watched teams across the LoL sphere. It merely reiterates the importance of player loyalty and how those who have stuck by through thick and thin while being incredibly successful play a massive part in the team’s intangible growth.

The association of Martin “Rekkles” Larsson with Karmine Corp is another example of long-lasting future proof impact. Rekkles was briefly teammates with Jankos at G2, before he left abruptly.

A combination of circumstances, from meta changes to the pandemic, led to their performances dipping. What once worked for G2 was no longer even an option. Even newcomers such as MAD Lions got the better of them. As Jankos puts it, the team had lost the fire – the motivation to succeed. Yet, Jankos stuck to the team in a massive show of faith, immediately shooting up their brand value despite the series of disappointing performances.

Meanwhile, even as Rekkles moved on to another team, his following grew. He was embraced. Sponsors and fans made a beeline for him. As per Twitter, he was among the 10 most talked-about esports players from January to June 2022, which contributed immensely to the brand equity of his team. When crowning glory came with the European Masters Trophy, thereby putting behind the disappointment of the G2 partnership, Karmine hit a windfall in terms of sponsorship and online viewership, which further swelled their on-ground partnerships leading to massive financial gains.

Sponsorship and brand equity aside, fans have an equal stake because they’re the ones who fuel the gaming economy. Fans traditionally like players they can relate to, those who are outgoing and show the willingness and passion to represent the team they do. When they grow from being rookies to superstars, flourishing in a set up that has given them an identity, this love affair swells into something massive. But when players seek to carve out a legacy and search for better opportunities, the same players can be vilified. Such is the crude nature of sport these days.

The relationship between players and teams are also sometimes a defining factor. The same teams that often trade players or remove them from rosters are the ones that stick by some others when they are at their lowest ebbs. These may be down to the player’s quality, their ability to deliver over the long-term and possibly their ability to fuel the fan base, win them titles which further bring in money. All said, there’s only so much distance loyalty can traverse when it comes to the player-organisation relationship. Yet, it’s seen as one of the biggest components of brand equity of teams.