PSG, Manchester City and Roma are among the big clubs that have invested heavily in the burgeoning esports market in recent years. They are dedicating a significant amount of time and energy to nurturing stars and building teams that can flourish in the competitive gaming sector. Yet football and esports do not seem like the most natural of companions, so why are these clubs so keen to crack this market?
The remarkable rise of esports
There are now 400 million dedicated esports fans across the globe and that number continues to spiral. The 2018 League of Legends World Championship attracted more viewers than the Super Bowl and that sort of statistic was bound to cause major sports clubs around the world to take notice.
Esports’ rise to prominence is all the more remarkable when you consider how new the industry is. Competitive gaming has taken place since the 1970s, but it only took off when high-speed broadband was rolled out around the world.
In less than a decade, it has gone from an underground pursuit to one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the world, and football clubs want a slice of the action. Last year, PSG’s Dota 2 team made it all the way to the final of The International. It is the world’s most lucrative esports tournament and in 2018 it carried a prize pool of $25.5 million.
PSG.LGD were ultimately unsuccessful, but they fared better than Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and co did in the Champions League. The Parisian club also has a team competing in the madcap game Rocket League – it essentially involves cars playing football while doing somersaults – plus FIFA, Bang and Brawl Stars.
Valencia, Man City, West Ham, Schalke, Wolfsburg and Sporting Lisbon are just some of the other teams getting involved. Arguably FC Copenhagen have been the most successful as their team, North, has drawn praise for respecting the esports community while also enjoying success in CS:GO tournaments.
The trend is not limited to football clubs either: many major NBA teams have esports equivalents and the Golden State Warriors recently locked horns with the Houston Rockets on Summoner’s Rift while their basketball teams were competing in a big match.
It is an economic juggernaut
The global esports industry is forecast to hit $1.1 billion this year due to advertising, sponsorship and merchandising. Entrepreneurs, rappers, actors, tech giants and sports club owners are all investing in it as they recognise its vast growth potential.
Leading companies like Coca-Cola, Intel, MasterCard and Red Bull sponsor big tournaments and this has allowed several gamers to go professional. Prize purses are soaring all the time and Epic Games has invested $100 million in turning Fortnite into a successful esport this year. The Fortnite World Cup will give away $30 million in prize money and the qualification campaign is extremely competitive.
A massive betting industry has also sprouted up alongside it, as esports fans enjoy wagering on big matches and tournaments. You can find huge selection of esports betting markets at dedicated competitive gaming bookmakers like Unikrn, while the world’s biggest betting sites also have esports sections now. Fans often know just as much about the scene as the odds compilers and feel like they have a great chance of turning their expertise into a profit.
This helps boost interest and engagement levels and viewership figures, as fans stream big tournaments via Twitch and YouTube and find that their excitement levels are massively ramped up by having money riding on the outcome.
There are many similarities between esports and football
The days of gamers being stereotyped as spotty, introverted teenagers frittering their time away in the bedrooms are now firmly consigned to the history books. The leading lights in the esports scene are multimillionaires and they enjoy lucrative sponsorship deals. They boast massive social media followings and their YouTube channels are outrageously popular.
They are just like footballers in so many ways: they are often rich at a young age and they have to remain professional and train hard amid all the temptations that newfound wealth brings. They have training camps, players’ associations, managers and schedules, and they are either celebrated or vilified depending on how well they fare, while fans dissect their performances on social media, forums and other digital communities.
Many of the games bear little resemblance to football, but the FIFA ePremier League is well underway, allowing football fans to follow their favourite teams in the digital sphere as well as on the pitch. FIFA is growing in importance as an esport: 20 million people entered the FIFA eWorld Cup 2018 qualifying campaign and winner MSdossary hobnobbed with the likes of Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo at the FIFA Best Awards in London. Many more are competing at this year’s tournament.
But football clubs’ experience is not only relevant to FIFA. They can help make the nascent esports scene more organised, professional and disciplined, which will benefit it massively.
Right now esports is a diverse ecosystem, made up of many different games and communities, with no overarching governing bodies. This makes it exciting and innovative, but it also stifles growth, and the presence of leading football clubs can give the scene a real shot in the arm.
Safeguarding their future
The number of esports viewers is expected to surge past the 600 million mark by 2022 and that will see it overtake several major sports in the popularity stakes. Many commentators expect competitive gaming to rival and then usurp even the world’s biggest sports in the future.
That has spurred big clubs into action, as they have taken the “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach. By getting into the scene early on, they are blessed with first mover advantage. Ultimately it amounts to safeguarding their future.
Competitive gaming massively over-indexes among teenagers and young adults, as they have grown up immersed in technology. Many are gamers themselves, as the video gaming industry is now bigger than Hollywood and the record industry.
They might identify more with a gamer than they do with a finely tuned footballer, and they really revere the stars of the esports scene. Tapping into esports allows football clubs to reach new markets and demographics – the scene is particularly big in South Korea and China – while growing their brands and attracting new sponsors at the same time.