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A drink backed by a sports (gaming) hero

Dr Pepper plans to announce that it will promote a professional Halo 3 player on bottles that it will distribute nationally. (From The New York Times)

Dr Pepper/Seven Up plans to announce on Wednesday that, for the first time, it is promoting a professional athlete on bottles that it will distribute nationally. But the shaggy-haired athlete on the label is not a traditional sports star: he's a 21-year-old who has a three-year, $250,000 contract to play video games.

Dr Pepper is featuring the Halo 3 player Tom Taylor, who goes by Tsquared, on the labels, which will appear on about 175 million 20-ounce bottles from January to April.

Credit: Major League Gaming

It may seem a strange promotion for a national brand like Dr Pepper. But video games are hugely popular with young men, who are playing them instead of watching television and reading magazines. Marketers are trying to advertise their products to this group by sponsoring tournaments or placing advertisements within the games themselves. (The Obama presidential campaign, for example, put ads on virtual billboards in the game Burnout Paradise.)

Taylor may not have the name recognition of, say, Derek Jeter, but he resembles him in other ways: he has a contract with the sports association Major League Gaming, puts in up to 15 hours a day practicing his Halo 3 skills, has an endorsement deal with Dr Pepper, and has a high profile among gamers.

"It's not like I'm Tom Cruise or Usher walking down the street or anything like that, but it's gotten to the point where you have to look your best when you go out," Taylor said. "I carry a Sharpie around, like Peyton Manning."

With the new labels, Dr Pepper is trying to grab the attention of gaming fans, who at Major League Gaming are largely men in their teenage years and early 20s.

"We think there's an opportunity to bring more people into the Dr Pepper franchise," said Terry Hockens, brand manager for Dr Pepper.

Dr Pepper struck the deal with Major League Gaming, a New York City company that organizes teams and competitions. This year, the league has 50 professional teams, each specializing in one of five multiplayer games, including Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4. The teams compete in six tournaments throughout the year (amateurs can play at some), and a typical tournament draws 12,000 to 15,000 spectators over three days, according to the league.

Fans can watch the competitions on Major League Gaming's Web site. They can also track each team's performance at MLG's sister site, GameBattles, which has 2.5 million registered users.

Brands like Dr Pepper, Stride gum, Old Spice, and Panasonic have signed on as league sponsors, which means that they have signs and booths at events, promotion on the league's Web site, and permission to use its logos in their marketing.

"The successful marketing of major stars is what sports leagues have always been about," said Matthew Bromberg, the chief executive of Major League Gaming. "What's really going on here is, for tens of millions of young men, the aspiration to be a pro gamer is the new dream of sports stardom," he said.

The Dr Pepper label promotion is the biggest retail program for the league, Bromberg said.

The promotion lets consumers enter bottle cap codes online to win points in tournaments and chances to win prizes like T-shirts and televisions. The labels featuring Taylor will appear on regular and diet 20-ounce bottles.

About 80 percent of the total number of Dr Pepper bottles on sale during the promotion will feature the special labels, Hockens said.

Dr Pepper has had other label promotions, including one for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull this year, and has run regional sports-theme promotions, like one for the Dallas Cowboys. However, this is the first sports promotion with national distribution.

Dr Pepper began its league sponsorship this year. "Initially, we were looking for a new way to reach our target audience, and we knew that gaming as a genre was extremely important to our target audience," said Richard Lyons, the manager of the interactive team at Dr Pepper.

League executives suggested that Dr Pepper sponsor not only the organization but also a team, and Dr Pepper marketers liked the four members of the team Str8 Rippin, including Taylor.

"They really are rock stars in their own little world," Lyons said.

Interestingly, the league itself does very little promotion: no online ads, no television ads, no print ads.

Still, said Billy Pidgeon, a game industry analyst for the market research firm IDC, the group "has the highest visibility" of any online gaming league in the United States. Competitors include the World Cyber Games, with sponsors including Samsung and Xbox 360, and the Electronic Sports League.