Why top football teams are rushing to get Fifa eSports players onside

L to R: Sean Allen, Francisco Cruz, David Byetheway

Since Neolithic man first sparked a flint and used the resulting fire to light our species’ first 5-a-side football pitches for evening fixtures, football's remained more or less the same. Pigs’ bladders became branded latex balls and primitive war chants evolved into verses of ‘the referee is a w*nker’, but, essentially, the best teams have always strived to sign young talent capable of sealing victory on the pitch.

Then 2016 kicked in, and an entirely new playing field emerged, those simulated by EA Sport's football video game, Fifa, seeing increasingly more clubs scout the once-maligned digital realm to snap up professional gamers.

VFL Wolfsburg, Manchester City, West Ham United, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon and more, hired eSports players to serve as ambassadors, compete in Fifa competitions and attend fan events. For performing in full kit as a member of the club at events, these eSports professionals draw a salary and build support.

Despite the widespread availability and success of Fifa for many years, clubs didn’t take notice of the opportunities on offer until the emergence of eSports (and streaming) made a sizeable, largely millennial audience readily available... Fifa has been around since 1994 after all.

In the twenty odd years since the ignition of the franchise, Fifa 16 now more closely resembles reality than it does Fifa 94, with its annual iterations serving up a dollop of officially licenced teams and players, synonymous with the global football sporting association of the same name. It's not all been smooth sailing though, it has faced tight competition from Japanese rival Pro Evolution Soccer since the turn of the millennium, but has inarguably remained the dominant title.

On why clubs are now making their first forays into eSports, Haran Ramachandran, M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment digital head and leader of its new eSports division, told The Drum that eSports encapsulates “the younger generation that all football clubs are trying to engage with,” adding that their time spent playing and watching eSports greatly surpass their engagements with real world sports.

Ramachandran says: “Ninety minutes watching a live match is nothing compared to the hours this audience willingly spends watching content on Twitch or lovingly crafting a squad on FIFA Ultimate Team. It's a no-brainer that a football club should want to insert itself into that environment.”

Sports teams are not just investing in the digital representation of their own sport either Ramachandran says. For example German side Schalke recruited a full team of League of Legends (LOL) players, a multiplayer fantasy arena title that is, to date,the most popular and competitive eSports game. Additionally, American football team the Philadelphia 76ers own the UK’s top LOL team, Dignitas, hinting at the complex nature of these digital drives.

Thomas Rottgermann, managing director of VFL Wolfsburg, one of the first football teams to sign a Fifa player in Benedict 'Salz0r' Salzer, and a second in Wolverhampton lad David Bytheway, thinks clubs should remain on brand and invest only in football.

“For us football is our only target. We very much respect the other kinds of digital games but it's not part of our club. We're only doing football. It’s good to be focused.”

As part of its digital strategy, the club is looking to assemble a team of Fifa representatives across the world to establish a global brand. “We have a claim that football is more than 90 minutes on the pitch. We are supporting every kind of football, women's football, men's football, youth football, walking football for the older guys, and now digital football for the young guys because we are sure that is also a sport.”

Rottgermann says “we pay them for playing for our club as we do other footballers. We equip them with their new consoles, gear and kits as well as offering access to our sponsors; it's good for us as a young club to have access to this target group.”

Echoing a hunger for a wider competition for each club’s Fifa representative to face off, Rottgermann concludes: “We will organize our tournaments and our own events. But we also hope that there will be a kind of kind of league in maybe in Germany but also in Europe. And that simply add to the real football there are really matches against the big clubs in Europe.”

Two months after Rottgermann announced his desire for a competition, the French FA tied a partnership with Fifa developer EA Sport, that would see each of the 20 football clubs in Ligue 1 sponsoring two Fifa players - with additional football associations reportedly planning similar initiatives to spark a wider competition across Europe.

Kris Robb, a community manager at Digital Sports Arena, an agency currently developing eSports title football management sim Gameday Live, says eSports is fast becoming one of the major players in global entertainment, urging brands to be “pioneers” into the domain as it provides a “a natural connection” between clubs and fans.

While club investment is legitimising the ability of Fifa professionals, within their own right, these players “are fast becoming recognisable global icons,” building YouTube followings in the millions, streaming gameplay, tips and strategy liveto thousands of viewers. He claims this forges an “invaluable connection between the professional eSports athletes and the audience that is not even close to being replicated between the fans and professional footballers”.

And while not the largest eSport by a long-shot, Fifa shows great potential for growth in the fact it can easily integrate into existing football fandoms.

“The perception that gaming is only for teenagers shut away in dark dungeons with pizza boxes lying around them is fast dissipating and so it should. The reality is professional gamers are playing in front of millions of viewers, making hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in prize money, while filling stadiums.”

Nick Farnhill, co-founder and chief executive of Poke, argues that eSports, and in particular, these Fifa pairings, reach beyond traditional football fans - those who may never visit a stadium, let alone buy a season ticket: “If billions of people are happy to put their feet up and watch their favourite football team online, on their laptops and mobiles, why wouldn't they watch skilled players battling it out on FIFA 17?”

“I'd imagine the average eSports fan is currently spending far less than your Premiership lifetime supporter, so the revenue opportunities are enormous. Not just via advertising, but also with the sales of physical and virtual merchandising.”

Many of these Fifa athletes also generate entertaining content for fans, while not a professional player, Spencer FC is a leading Fifa influencer on YouTube boasting shy of 2 million followers.

As part of a branded series for EE, Poke organised the Wembley Cup, a physical football game featuring Fifa YouTubers and football legends like Jamie Carragher and Robert Pires, clashing in the national stadium. Sponsored by EA Sports, it was heavily integrated with the sports title.

On tapping into Fifa-savvy influencers, Farnhill branded the participants as "creators who have worked hard to build a credible and loyal audience on YouTube," adding "they understand their audience implicitly and what they want, so listen to them".

With the live-stream of the Wembley Cup match reaching 275,000 viewers, Farnhill advised brands looking to utilse influencers: "Create content with them as a true partner and don't simply use them as a proxy to reach an online audience that you find hard to connect with. This will always result in content that is sought out, shared and effective."

The Drum is investigating the Fifa eSports phenomena in a documentary called eSports: Football Rebooted. Sign up for the free viewing event 3 August in London here.

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