On July 11, one of the most successful porn aggregation sites in the world announced it was interested in sponsoring a professional gaming team. The tweet from YouPorn immediately became a hot talking point in esports circles, receiving more than 4,600 retweets and rising to the top of Reddit's influential Dota 2 subreddit.

The tweet sparked quite a public discussion regarding what is and isn’t acceptable in the esports space. Some suggested that pornography was a far less harmful sponsor than some of the other industries that had already become part of the esports landscape, be it energy drinks or computer companies that employ cheap labor overseas.

Others claimed that the move would be a collective step backwards for the industry. Such a partnership, after all, is unprecedented in mainstream sports. And team contracts for Riot’s League of Legends Championship Series, the largest league in Western esports, explicitly forbid sponsors from the adult industry from appearing on apparel.

Are they serious? How practical could such a partnership be?

We reached out to YouPorn to find out.

We talked at length with the company's PR and marketing manager, Matt Blake, about what this sponsorship could mean for both industries, what YouPorn thinks about esports, and whether the community is ready for a dialogue about adult material.

Oh, and yes: They are very, very serious.

First, right off the bat, I think most people felt the tweet was either a joke or a marketing ploy to feel out the esports demographic. What were the intentions behind the sudden interest in esports?

Definitely wasn’t a joke, when we really sat down and considered this, our thought process was that porn and video games are a pretty natural, complementary pairing when you think about it. These days, all consoles come with browser access, so people can consume both in one destination—we’ve seen it in our own traffic data. Huge spikes.

But on another note, the esports demographic is steadily on the rise, especially with Twitch becoming more popular, it’s giving audiences easy access to tune in to esports events and tournaments. Thing is, we’re huge video game nerds here too (I’ve clocked a ton of hours into DayZ and Minecraft at this point), so I think we have something to offer the team that wants to move forward with us in terms of financial backing, and in turn we get to catch the attention of gamers around the world.

The concept of a pornographer sponsoring anything might seem strange to some. Can you give us some examples of other partnerships you guys have been involved with prior to this?

While we haven’t done anything similar in the scope of the esports industry, some of our past partnerships initiatives include a YouPorn song with [R&B musician] Brian McKnight, movies like Sex Tape, a contest with the Cloud Media streaming media player and the Are You Hardcore club tour.

Were you at all surprised by the number of people that expressed an interest in working with you? Who stood out as the most interesting candidates?

Not at all surprised actually. We were prepping ourselves for a bit of backlash from the gaming community, but really the general response was largely positive. Seems gamers are more receptive to partnering with a porn company than we originally thought—which is great news since that’s a community that’s always plugged in to what’s going on digitally. We’ll be here to provide a little respite come break time after hours of competition.

We had a number of different candidates that expressed interest. One of those people was Kelby May, the general manager of [Counter Logic Gaming], a very well known League of Legends team (currently ranked no. 4 in North America).

There's a tendency in esports for organisations to use anything they can to raise brand awareness. This can lead to some pretty cheap and cringeworthy attempts at generating publicity and/or drama. Any concerns you are being inundated with timewasters?

Not concerned at all. Like I mentioned above, we’re in the middle of final talks with a team that stepped up and was willing to legitimately take us up on our offer. We had our concerns at first, but that’s all been put to rest.

Esports and pornography are both industries that have stigmas attached to them, albeit very different ones. I feel both have a history of seeking mainstream legitimacy through the years. Do you think anyone should be concerned that a “marriage” between the two has the potential to derail the current altering perceptions about both?

I don’t think I do. This is a match that’s beneficial for both parties. Breaking it down, the esports demographic is generally thought to lack social skills and maturity, while the adult entertainment industry is thought of as a seedy collection of filth.

The brilliance of the digital age, however, is the accessibility and plasticity of public opinion. I’m sure you’ve seen that we here at YouPorn (and the rest of the Pornhub Network) have been taking huge leaps and bounds in terms of our marketing strategy—all in the hopes of breaking some of the taboos and lessening the stigma associated with the adult entertainment industry. We want to make it possible for people to talk about porn without worrying about guilt or shame.

The esports industry is entering a similar phase. Esports has already gone through great lengths to lessen the breach of established rules, eliminate trolling and profanity, and actually make maintenance of personal hygiene a requirement for participation (as crazy as that sounds). I think it’s paid off.

I mean, the Staples Center sold out for the League of Legends tournament last year, and clocked a record 8.5 million online viewers. Another example was the Dota 2 event [The International], which was aired on ESPN. The grand prize set a world record, topping $10 million. I think that alone is a sign of evolution.

This partnership is a milestone for the growth of both industries.

As someone who has also done mainstream sports reporting for a number of years, I struggle to think of a pornography business sponsoring a team or athlete—not because they wouldn’t want to, but because mainstream sports reject that association. Do you think esports should have a different set of values?

I think it’s just a sign of the times. Esports is a relatively new industry vertical in professional competition, and its core audience is a product of the digital age. They’re more receptive to change and open-minded in terms of adapting to new trends. That said, I think the real comparison is the difference in old-school mindsets vs. new-school in terms of partnership integration. Traditional sports organizations have a certain presence in the collective conscious that they’ve established over many years, while esports is more of a fledgling institution finding its voice – which in the digital age, is constantly shifting and adapting with the times. It’s more fluid.

Several esports leagues and tournament organizers already stipulate that teams cannot display sponsors on their apparel or mention them in promotional material. Would you be willing to work around this? Any plans to try and engage with those parties to try and alter their minds?

We totally plan on working around this. The concept of the partnership and contract is what’s important, and we completely intend on operating within the organization’s rules and stipulations. This isn’t a cheap attempt at parading our name in front of everyone—we don’t want to be a cop-out.

The demographic for esports obviously has a significant number of people that are not old enough to view pornography. Do you have any concerns about that? Would there be any protective stipulations placed into the sponsorship, such as age restrictions?

The team we’re currently in final talks with is composed of players that are all of legal age. Of the hundreds of team that initially expressed their interest, only teams comprised of players that were all 18 and over were considered. Several of the major tournaments or leagues already have legal age restrictions in place.

As far as protective measures, we’re well aware that  gaming is a space comprised of all age groups, and that’s definitely taken into consideration in all aspects of the sponsorship deals we make. We wouldn’t think about moving into this space in an overly sexualized manner, which means that all decisions we make will be made with the audience in mind, and will be appropriate for said demographic.

If you do still go ahead with this it wouldn’t be esports' first brush with the world of pornography. The Championship Gaming Series held their 2007 draft in the Playboy mansion. There was also a lot of talk of Playboy coming in to sponsor esports team in 2010 and it didn’t generate any negative responses. Are immune from criticism, that they have somehow become accepted as part of the landscape?

I don’t think it’s so much that brands are immune to criticism. Again, I’d say that it ties back to what I mentioned earlier that a demographic more in tune with the changing landscape of the digital era is just simply more receptive to adaptation when it comes to out-of-the-box brand associations. It also has to do with the approach companies take. If partnerships are done tastefully, and aren’t simply a cheap attempt at brand exposure; if a company actually cares about the partnership and evolving the industry then everything is copacetic.

Your parent company, Mind Geek, owns a lot of pornography outlets including Reality Kings, Brazzers, and the top five websites for pornography on the Internet, of which you are one. Why is YouPorn the brand that is testing the esports waters?

We decided to go with YouPorn because of the brand message that property exudes. We typically market and promote YouPorn as a tamer, more couple-friendly entity compared to the rest of the sites within our network.

What would you consider a successful period of sponsorship or foray into esports?

While nothing has been finalized just yet, any deal we establish would likely run from six months to one year to start.

The esports business can be quite childish, not just because it is a fledgling industry but also because of the average age of the people that make it up. There aren’t many sectors where you will encounter 23 year old “CEOs.” Do you think we’re ready for a serious dialogue about pornography and its place in society?

I think just like any fledgling industry, there will always be certain hiccups, but with the recent measures esports has put into play, it’s clearly a sign that they’re trying to not only grow up, but legitimize their presence in the professional competitive space.

The dialog surrounding porn in society has been going on since the inception of the adult industry. I’d say that the times we live in have done a lot in terms of opening up dialog around that can be free of judgment and helps to slowly decentralize what used to be thought of as a universally accepted stigma. It’s not. Many of the initiatives that our company has put into place has been in the pursuit of continuing that conversation and eliminating those taboos.

Finally, can you tell us how the talks and potential deals are progressing? Any regrets so far, or is this still going to go ahead?

As mentioned earlier, we’re in final talks with a team as we speak, and once everything’s finalized contractually, we’ll make sure to put the word out. So nope, we have no no regrets!

Photo by theducks/flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) (remix by Fernando Alfonso III)