October 16, 2019
Written by Bruno Pantaleoni
Hardly a new concept, video game tournaments have been around ever since video games got introduced into pop culture. Whereas it was your parents – or yourself - playing Pacman on the arcade, or your children – or yourself, again – online on FIFA or Call of Duty. Most of us have played a tournament, even if only a friendly competition amongst friends after a school day.
Technological evolution offered better graphics, changed dynamics, improved controls and, with high-speed internet, allowed users to test their skills outside of their group of friends or at their local arcade. The after-class tournaments started to develop globally, and soon the term "videogame tournament" needed to be rebranded as well. A new brand that would suggest the seriousness behind it, the stakes and the spoils of winning it. Videogame tournaments became eSports.
The current mainstream popularity of eSports means you have most definitely have heard something about it on sports news websites. A new multimillion-dollar industry seemingly appeared out of thin air. Through broadcasting platforms such as YouTube and Twitch, the 'pro-players' of video games showcase their abilities, gaining millions of followers who not only play but also watch people playing. With the power of a massive following, these individuals have discovered how to make a living out of it. They have become eSports athletes.
So, should eSports be ignored by the Sports Industry?
Most definitely not.
Embracing the change could have a meaningful impact on the industry as a whole. Seeing eSports as a means of starting a conversation with a new audience is one of the ways to go. Several football clubs have noticed that they could - or should - be part of the not-so-niche-anymore industry. In La Liga, Bundesliga, and the Premier League, there are examples of football clubs signing players to represent their club colours in competitions, just as Real Madrid would sign Eden Hazard.
This year was the first edition of the Premier League's 'eCompetition'. EA Sports' FIFA 19 was played to determine Liverpool as the champion through the capable hands of 17-year-old Donovan Hunt. Or, as he is known in the gaming community – F2Tekkz. At a global stage, the FIFA eWorld Cup 2019 saw Mohammed Harkous - AKA MoAuba - winning the title and becoming the first German to do so. Alongside the title, a prize of $250.000 and being involved in FIFA's The Best award night.
North of the Premier League, in Scotland's biggest city, the leading club in the country is going beyond merely having eFootball as part of their portfolio. Celtic is not only a founding member of the eFootball.Pro league – played on Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer, the rival to EA Sport's game – but has also reached the final on its inaugural tournament. The successful season prompted the SPFL club to expand their eSports endeavours. They have recently offered support to one of the 32 teams taking part in the Call of Duty World League, a competition that offers a prize pool of 2 million dollars.
Activision's Call of Duty is another example of a game that is rapidly becoming a behemoth of eSports. The 2019 World League – the seventh edition – is the last of its kind. The format is changing to city-based franchises, similar to what is done in the MLS and the NFL. To join the league, an organisation needs to acquire the rights to be a franchise. Reports suggest that the cost of admission is 25 million dollars. The same model of city-based franchising is used on Overwatch, another first-person shooting game. With cartoonish visuals, Overwatch offers more child-friendly gameplay, as opposed to Call of Duty, that attempts to recreate war-torn environments with its realistic graphics.
Opportunities for sporting organisations
The rise of eSports should not be seen as an up and coming rival for a stake in the industry. It should be seen as a chance for existing sporting organisations and clubs to capitalise on a growing market. Facebook data suggests that fans of the Premier League are frequently associated with EA Sports, Konami, Call of Duty and Rockstar Games. Therefore, there is a connection between gaming and football.
The growing numbers resulted in the development of eSports teams and organisations. Mad Lions, based in Spain, is an excellent example of an eSport Club that saw and seized the opportunity. With a 'multi-eSport-team' that plays FIFA, League of Legends, Counter Strike: Go, and Clash Royale, Mad Lions was founded in 2017, and two years later already has staff that covers several aspects of what would be found in a traditional sporting club, from content manager to psychologist.
For football clubs, the structure is already in place. Plus, there is the added benefit of relying on the solid branding of the clubs' names. The obvious first step into the eSports world for sporting organisations is the virtual recreation of their sport: EA Sports' FIFA franchise, and the newly rebranded eFootball PES, from Konami, would be the logical pathway into the industry. The immediate benefit of such a move would be the possibility of exploring fan engagement with younger audiences. The commercial benefits would be to join an industry set to hit the $1.1 billion in revenue in 2019, as reported by gaming researcher NewZoo. The mark for 2019 would be a 27% growth over the $897.2 Million in 2018.
Schalke 04, in the Bundesliga, has a team of eAthletes competing in League of Legends (LoL), FIFA and PES as well. The German club branched out to eSports in 2016 and got close to achieving a spot in the LoL World Championships after reaching the semi-finals in the European Championship. Schalke 04 eSports has reportedly renewed a sponsorship agreement with German brand Braineffect – performance food products – until December 2020. The Gelsenkirchen based club states on their website: 'From an economic perspective, FC Schalke 04 want to support their core business that is football, with a sustainable and profitable involvement in esports.'
A Statista report from 2016 shows that 809 million people were aware of eSports around the globe. The forecast suggested that that number would increase to 1.57 Billion in 2019. NewZoo also reports growth in the industry on its 2018 report on eSports: from 165 million enthusiasts in 2018 to 250 million in 2021. Plus an increase in occasional viewers from 215 million in 2018 to a predicted 307 million in 2021. In the United States, studies also suggest non-stop growth from eSports in comparison to other traditional sports. The prognostic offered by the Syracuse University projects that by 2021, eSports will surpass every league except for the NFL.
With many sources claiming that eSports does not seem to be a temporary hype, but indeed a trend that will cement its place in the sports industry, the future does look promising. The market is diverse and profitable and still in its early years, offering opportunities for both traditional brands and organisations, as well as for new ones to venture and succeed. Not by chance, the International Olympic Committee has discussed the rise of eSports and what the future holds. There are also ongoing discussions about adding eSports to the 2022 Asian Games, as a medal event - in 2018 it was done as a demonstration. There are also reports that the Paris 2024 will integrate eSports in some way in the Olympics.
Perhaps, soon, we might get to see MoAuba and F2Tekkz playing against each other on a golden medal FIFA match. For what the industry has been showcasing, the broadcasting rights for that match would be quite profitable for the IOC.
Football clubs have noticed that the eSports market could offer new revenue possibilities.
Football organisations can use eSports as a platform to connect to younger audiences.
The growth forecast of eSports would suggest that joining the trend sooner rather than later could prove to be economically advantageous for sporting organisations.
eSports could and should be embraced by football organisations, regardless of the game chosen is the simulation of football or any other one.
Bruno Pantaleoni forms part of the Sports Business Institute Barcelona's marketing team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Image source: Forbes.com