EVERY DAY you can read about a major football club establishing an eSports presence or strategy. Clubs like Schalke, Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan, Ajax, Manchester City, Liverpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers have seen the value in creating initiatives around a rapidly growing part of the sports world.
For some, the fusion of “real” sport with technology-driven gaming activities, is difficult to understand. It may be a generational thing, or just that the traditional perception of “sport” does not necessarily include images of daylight-deprived enthusiasts, glued to their screens wearing baseball caps, hoodies and adopting pseudonyms that sound like graffiti artist tags.
But there’s little doubt this is going to become big business for football clubs in the future. The eSports industry is growing faster than football at the moment and although it’s still relatively small by comparison, over the next five years, it could transform the business models of Europe’s major clubs.
KPMG Football Benchmark, in its latest report, said revenues for eSports are poised to reach US$ 1 billion for the first time this year and within five years, could hit the US$ 5 billion mark.
Clubs are following a number of strategic routes into eSports. Firstly, it is worth understanding the motives of the clubs. Football games, for example, form a very small part of the industry. Games like League of Legends and Fortnite are far bigger than football products such as FIFA. It’s not the games themselves that are capturing clubs’ imagination.
There’s a very important element of eSports that is driving football’s interest – the opportunity to tap into new audiences and, according to NewZoo, to reach the millenial generation. The average age of eSports participants and viewers is 32, some seven years younger than the average age of the Premier League spectator. Furthermore, 62% of eSports viewers are aged between 18 and 34.
There’s a degree of mild anxiety about the ageing football clientbase, which is possibly due to the high ticket prices but also because more recent generations have so many distractions. If you consider that the past 20 years have seen a boom in spectator figures, rather like the years following World War Two and the post-1966 years, then there could be a phase where the generation that has experienced and contributed to the Premier/SKY era, starts to lose interest or begins to reprioritise football. It’s important for the game to foster new relationships with the coming football fans to guarantee the momentum of the past two decades is maintained as the baton is passed from one generation to the next.
Gaming and technology is one of the most compelling distractions for recent generations. Hence, by connecting with people who look to eSports for entertainment, participation and general interest, football clubs can cultivate new fans.
Clubs have entered into partnerships with gaming and entertainment companies. For example, Paris Saint-Germain have linked up with LGD, Manchester City have partnered with FaZe Clan and FC København are working with Nordisk films to create “North eSports”. Real Madrid are in the process of remodelling their stadium and will include an eSports arena as part of the development. These examples all suggest longevity rather than a passing phase.
eSports players, at the highest level, have to be tremendously committed. “According to Fnatic, a leader in the professional eSport sector, top players have to practice for up to nine hours a day,” revealed Phil Carling, director of football at consultancy group Octagon at a seminar at University of London’s Birkbeck College recently.
Where eSports differs from conventional sport is that it creates a greater level of democracy. The leap from enthusiastic gamer to professional eSports is far narrower than other sports and there are very few entry barriers. Basically, anyone could acquire the potential to become proficient at eSports.
Football clubs’ interest in this growing market is not just fuelled by the desire to access young people, it is also in order to seize the market before somebody else tries to gain “ownership”. UEFA has hinted that it would like to drive eSports and implement a strategy and thereby control the direction of the sector, but in all probability, the digital platforms will present the biggest challenges. Amazon, for example, invested a lot of resources in eSports in 2017 and Google has ambitions despite failing to impress eSports gamers.
Asia has, arguably, the most tech-savvy population and therefore is is easy to see China, japan and other countries eventually being dominant in the eSports field.
The Premier League launched its ePremier in 2018 and the first series was won by Liverpool’s Donovan Hunt, a 17 year-old better known as F2Tekkz. Teenagers like Hunt are earning substantial sums of money from playing games such as FIFA.
Clearly, eSports will become an accepted business arm of the top clubs or part of a portfolio of technology interests. As the world’s leading football institutions become more diverse and akin to conglomerates seeking new revenue streams to remain competitive, gaming may be just one of many unfamiliar activities that comes under the umbrella of the football club.