LOS ANGELES • Hollywood talent agencies are wooing video-gaming stars like never before, betting that they can lead a new generation of celebrity endorsers for mainstream brands.
A few years ago, top agencies represented just a handful of players, but now they see an opportunity to turn them into household names.
As the gaming industry grows, players will develop projects for television, podcasts or animation, according to Mr Conor Beesemyer, an agent at William Morris Endeavor (WME), part of Endeavor Group Holdings.
"We're going to see more and more gamers become the faces of brands," Mr Beesemyer said, adding that the industry is attracting large advertisers not typically associated with popular titles such as Fortnite, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and Call Of Duty.
His company's clients include Fortnite pro Nate Hill.
While many players are represented by small, gaming-specific agencies across the world, large businesses find it easier to strike advertising deals with top firms.
The four largest agencies - Creative Artists Agency (CAA), WME, United Talent Agency and ICM Partners - have been building up their gaming divisions for years, aiming to sign competitive e-sports athletes and streamers who play on major platforms such as Amazon's Twitch or Google's YouTube.
Earlier this month, video-game pro Ninja joined CAA, becoming one of several players to align with the firm this year.
His longstanding sponsorships with Adidas and Red Bull are examples of where the industry is headed over the next five to 10 years, according to Mr Morris Garrard, a research analyst at Futuresource Consulting.
"These are the kind of deals that become possible with the larger multi-industry agencies, as opposed to the e-sports-specific agencies," Mr Garrard said.
All parties - gamers, advertisers and talent agencies - are eager to lock up higher-dollar deals.
Ninja's multi-year deal to perform on Microsoft's Mixer platform was negotiated by Loaded, a gaming-focused talent agency, and was worth more than US$20 million (S$27 million), CNN Business reported. He rejoined Twitch last month after Mixer shut down.
Forbes recently estimated that the top 10 highest-earning players collected more than US$120 million last year, much of it from endorsements and brand partnerships, though no single gaming star made the magazine's top 100 list of celebrity earners.
Advertising within the gaming world itself still has plenty of room to grow, even before its most popular players blossom into globally recognisable celebrities like movie stars or major sports figures.
Streamers often focus on small deals that casually promote gaming products, such as headsets or chairs.
But it is not difficult to understand why big companies see an opportunity. The industry is growing fast, and its legions of young viewers are loyal and engaged with popular streamers or competitions for games such as Overwatch and League Of Legends.
Gaming already rivals professional sports and music in terms of the power of its stars, according to Mr David Freeman, co-head of digital at CAA, which has more than 35 clients in the industry.
"Having these massive audiences allows us to treat them and think of them as just talent - no different from other talent that we have in sports, music, TV and film," he said.
"It's a natural move for us to be doubling down our efforts over the last two to three years."
The agencies have expanded into gaming in a few ways - by picking off major stars from smaller firms, allying with speciality outfits and sometimes even buying them.
"We're just in the first few innings of how gaming and e-sports are really evolving globally," Mr Freeman said. "So us planting a flag, and going big with who we believe are some of the best gamers in the world, is something that we strategically very much believe in."
The smaller agencies do not necessarily view that as a threat.
According to Mr Ryan Morrison, founder of Evolved Talent Agency, three of his clients left for major agencies but came back within six months.
"There's so much bureaucracy and red tape to an agency that size, and it slowed down the deal flow," he said.