Esports is a rapidly growing industry. There are an estimated 400 million passionate esports fans globally, with events like the League of Legends World Championship attracted more viewers than the Super Bowl.
So, it’s not surprising that some of the biggest soccer clubs in the world want a slice of the action. Think of a major team and the odds are that they have invested in online soccer players: PSG, Manchester City and, more recently, Wolves are some of the star clubs to announce esports signings.
A few questions spring to mind. Are the clubs serious about this, or will they lose interest? How will they and the players benefit? Are there any possible downsides to this? Read on to find out more.
The esports gravy train
Just a decade ago esports was an underground pursuit. With the rise of the digital age, the sport’s popularity has risen to the level of worldwide fame for its stars and its figurehead tournament The International now boasts a prize pool of $34.3 million.
The momentum shows no signs of stopping, either. Digital market research company Newzoo predicts industry revenues to hit over $1.8 billion by 2022, thanks to sponsorship, merchandising and advertising. Global brands, such as Coca Cola and MasterCard, are pumping investment into tournaments, and have also helped fund the professional training of several gamers. Epic Games spent $100 million transforming Fortnite into an esport recently, something that is predicted to pay off handsomely.
Such riches on offer means the top soccer clubs aren’t far behind. Soccer is a money-oriented business these days, and leading clubs know where the cash lies.
It’s led to soccer clubs taking a ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ approach to the industry, with clubs seeing a dual benefit to investing in esports youngsters. .
Firstly, esports is generally seen as a positive activity, with numerous benefits associated with it. Sustained investment by clubs could put them in a positive ethical light, as it would encourage young fans to engage in a positive online activity, rather than potentially harmful pursuits.
Underage betting on sports and online casinos, for example, has been reported as a growing trend among youngsters in the UK, and leads to issues like problem gambling. Esports might be an antidote to that, giving youngsters a new, safer way to interact with their favourite sports team.
A stake in the future
Having esports players opens up a world of possibilities for soccer clubs. In terms of sponsorship, it gives them exposure to huge gaming firms who were out of reach before.
Take Manchester City as an example. Their deal with Turtle Beach, a gaming accessories provider, offers a multitude of benefits for both parties – City get a cash boost, while Turtle Beach get their logo on all the club’s official esport merch, in front of an audience of millions. This type of agreement would have been impossible previously.
Clubs also know that they need to get the attention of a new generation of customers. A fact of life now is that kids are more likely to play football online than in the local park, and esports is seens as a way to hook them onto the club brand. Doing so can procure a gamer’s long-term engagement in the club, increasing its popularity and, in turn, its revenue.
The clubs leading the way
The leading light amongst esports soccer clubs might not be what you expect. FC Copenhagen are an average club on the European soccer scene, but they’re the giants of the virtual world. They’ve enjoyed unprecedented success in CS:GO tournaments and are the blueprint for other clubs to follow.
Some more obvious names adorn the list, such as PSG, who have players in various competitions; and Manchester City, who became the first club to invest in the Chinese market.
A lesser light to have joined the industry recently are Wolves. After enjoying remarkable success on the physical field – scaling the heights of the Europa League along the way – their owners Fosun International agreed a deal with Chinese social media giant Weibo. The platform’s 445 million users offer a goldmine of potential for the English club, greatly enhancing their future branding plans.
Is there a downside to all this?
For all the rewards on offer, it’s important to remember the drawbacks of such deals. Today more than ever, there needs to be a concerted effort to promote physical exercise to children. With clubs diverting their attention and resources towards virtual gaming, it’s possible that they could neglect the physical side of their education programmes.
Of course, society as a whole has a responsibility to maintain this awareness, but clubs are an important part of the local community, and the onus is on them to keep youngsters aware of the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet.
Also, the physical game is what made the clubs in the first place. If they lose sight of this fact, along with the importance of the matchday experience in stadiums, then there could be huge negative consequences for the game of soccer.
That said, it appears clubs are following sensible strategies that don’t appear to endanger their traditional sporting activities or their local community. Finding the correct balance for this will be essential if both sports are to exist in harmony for generations to come.