eSports and soccer


By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 28, 2017) US Soccer Players – The concept of eSports is not always easy to understand for older generations. The idea of people watching other people playing video games seems strange and inaccessible. It’s not video games themselves that are tough to comprehend, or even the notion of playing them competitively. Human beings will make a competition out of anything that requires skill or luck.

No, it’s the idea of watching people play video games competitively that throws anyone over the age of say 30. How can videogames be a spectator sport? What entertainment value lies in that particular viewing experience?

As strange as it seems, the answer is simple, though it will still evade some people. Video games, like sports or movies or music, are part of the entertainment catalog of billions of people who reached consciousness during their proliferation. Like the rest of humanity going back 10,000 years, they naturally turned it into a competitive endeavor.

Eventually in a column on eSports on a soccer website, we have to connect the two. Playing soccer video games competitively is one part of the exploding eSports industry, alongside tournaments for American football and basketball games.

It’s the tenuous relationship between the virtual world of the soccer video game and the real world of professional soccer that deserves some examination as both explode upon the American entertainment landscape.

The consumption trends of young people reflect a number of difficult-to-swallow realities for older generations. One of them shows a disconnect between the real world figures of the EA Sports FIFA franchise and the youngest people playing the game. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that shows kids playing FIFA are often not aware that a digital footballer they love in FIFA is based on a living, breathing soccer player. The introduction to the player happens in the reverse of what an older generation sees as the natural progression of soccer fan to video game player.

That’s why EA Sports pays for the licenses, after all. Using real life clubs and players gives their game an authenticity that helps sell it to soccer fans. For more of EA’s customers, it’s more fun to play with Barcelona and control Lionel Messi than to play with a fictional club and control a fictional player.

Here’s where the disconnect gets interesting for soccer interests moving forward, and why we’re starting to see teams spend money on eSports: If the youngest FIFA players don’t care if they players they control are based on real athletes, why does EA Sports needs to pay for the license? Further, should real life soccer clubs featuring real players be worried that a future generation of fans is being lost?

For now, this is a question that only marketers are even starting to ask. The sports industry is too often convinced of its own invincibility, leading to a willful ignorance about the future. Just a few minutes with the people who track entertainment consumption for a living will dissuade anyone from the notion that shifting behaviors among groups growing up in a connected, stimulation rich age won’t affect soccer.

Considering the impact the FIFA game franchise has had on soccer fandom in America, the idea that the game could end up without a real world foundation is weird and unsettling. These things are still new enough that we haven’t even yet grasped how they’ve changed American appreciation of the sport. The phenomenon of soccer fans choosing a foreign club because of video games has only just made its way into the mainstream, but it’s real and widespread.

Soccer clubs are racing to get into the eSports market. It’s not clear what this means for the traditional models of fandom. It’s simply an area to exploit, turning on the same sort of loyalty ideas that they’ve built on for a century or more. Being progressive in the eSports area is almost an end unto itself. It reflects a nimble, digital world thinking that makes a club more appealing to fans on the edge of a generational shift.

The full expression of eSports investment is almost impossible to fathom. There’s a version of the future where eSports players are thought of as athletes, the equal to the real world people playing the games. It’s a future that has just as many fans attached to the eSports side of a club as they are to the side that puts 11 humans on a field of grass every week.

eSports has yet to resolve into its final form, but it’s not going anywhere. Soccer is traditionally strong abroad and growing in the United States. Soccer video games are popular and played competitively. For the most part, they’re a reflection of the real world version of the game.

How this develops is the question. There’s not an obvious answer, something the clubs would probably prefer. It’s a future with no template, no easy path to follow. The safest assumption right now is simple. Things are changing.

Jason Davis is the founder of and the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM. Contact him: Follow him on Twitter:

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