Earlier this year, when it was revealed Christopher Holly had been signed by New York City FC as the club’s first professional eSports athlete, the gamer who plays EA Sports’ FIFA franchise was granted the presentational features usually reserved for players like Andrea Pirlo and David Villa – from being photographed in the team’s jersey to holding up an NYCFC scarf in front of the club’s crest.
The signing of Holly, then 20, followed on from Manchester City’s acquisition of its own gamer, Kieran “Kez” Brown, who joined the team in October 2016 and has since been creating content and competing in tournaments on Man City’s behalf.
The growth of eSports – and the perks its stars are granted – has increased rapidly in recent years, but, to date, Holly remains the only professional gamer to be signed by a Major League Soccer club.
MLS has no league-wide policy regarding the eSports space, an official confirmed recently, leaving clubs to their own devices when deciding how best to enter an industry that last year alone saw 43 percent revenue growth and 256 million viewers worldwide. Currently, eSports are valued at around $ 1 billion – a number that is expected to continue to swell in years to come.
“When you see what’s being invested into it, and now some of the big companies and organizations, it’s not just coincidence,” Matt Moore, manager of digital and social media at Atlanta United, told FourFourTwo. “I do think it has legs, it has life, and it’s something that we need to be keeping our eyes and ears on.”
Recently, as part of an early toe-dip into the market, Atlanta hosted the popular eSports player Spencer FC and his club, Hashtag United, at its training ground as part of their Coca-Cola North American tour. The club hopes to arrange more events in the future.
MEETING THE DEMOGRAPHICS WHERE THEY PLAY
One of the biggest draws of this space, Moore said, is that it attracts the very audience MLS clubs are hoping will attach to their brands: Young millennials or members of Generation Y, many of whom may have been introduced to elements of soccer – or soccer as a whole – through games such as FIFA.
This connection between traditional and digital sport, then, has seen a number of teams across Europe, like Manchester City, use the FIFA video game as an organic way into the eSports market. So far, Sporting Lisbon, West Ham, Paris Saint-Germain, and Werder Bremen are among the clubs which have signed professional FIFA players to their rosters, despite the game’s tournaments having only a fraction of the financial rewards bestowed on games likes of Dota 2 and League of Legends. The prizepool for FIFA’s showpiece event, the FIFA Interactive World Cup, this year stood at $ 1.3 million, with the winner taking home $ 200,000; Dota 2 and League of Legends tournaments have seen annual prizes total in the tens of millions.
“I would say we aren’t looking at this first and foremost as a commercial vehicle,” Diego Gigliani, senior vice president of media and innovation for the City Football Marketing Group, said. “The opportunity to drive revenue – that’s not how this will perform at all. If you extend the definition more to fan engagement as a criteria, I do think that is a criteria for us.”
That means gamers who have been signed to professional soccer clubs being responsible for creating videos on platforms such as YouTube and Twitch, attending industry events, and playing FIFA matches against supporters before, during and after their employers’ matches. And, of course, competing in global tournaments.
With such activities in mind, Gigliani said, it’s important that clubs find a player(s) who can successfully balance the competitive, creative and community-based traits necessary to represent their brand. Holly, who is from Hempstead, NewYork, was ranked No. 2 in the Americas when he signed for the team.
Some teams, like Ajax, have opted for signing local talents; Wolfsburg chose to sign an English player, David Bytheway, who finished second at the FIFA Interactive World Cup in 2014. Others have even approached whole stables of players, already popular in online circles, either for their gaming abilities, popularity of their content, or both.
“As we look at other teams, I think it’s a little apples and oranges, just based on where we are in our growth process as we head into the space,” Cory Dolich, senior vice president of business operations and marketing at the Portland Timbers, said. “So, I wouldn’t necessarily say, ‘Hey, we’re looking at this club and trying to replicate what they are doing.’ We might cherry pick here and there, but it’s really getting down to: Is it going to be in alignment with our brand?’”
THE REALITY OF ESPORTS’ INFANCY
The Timbers have upped their focus on eSports entry points this year, Dolich said, and are currently exploring partnerships with both influencers and athletes. Despite the natural connection to FIFA, the club is also taking a more holistic view, assessing other gaming titles. This was the approach of Schalke 04, which entered the eSports space with League of Legends representation before signing players to partake on behalf of the club in FIFA tournaments.
But unlike traditional professional sports, where players tied to clubs are contracted to livable salaries, many eSports players signed to soccer clubs are yet to reach such levels of comfort. As a result – similar, in a way, to teams sometimes being beholden to the wishes of their megastars – personal lives can dictate when it comes to eSports signatures Some professional FIFA players have declared their intentions to use the platform to eventually become television presenters; others, maintaining day jobs, openly admit that their competitive gaming exploits cannot last forever.
Predicting where these lives – and the market – is headed, then, is an additional part of an equation that MLS clubs have to consider. The scouting period continues.
“I think probably our biggest learning is how quickly things can evolve and change,” Dolich said. “There are individuals that we were potentially looking at and thought they were a perfect fit and they had just had a life change and aren’t in the space anymore. That’s kind of a unique thing for us, that, unlike normal sports, I don’t see that happening in the same fashion – the quickness of changes for potential athletes and where they are going.”