Last year Manchester City became the first Premier League club to launch a Fifa Online team in China.
The team, which competed in the Online Star League (FSL) included highly sought-after players such as 2017’s Most Valuable Player Zhang Jun, and Aruya and Liu Chao, who have both excelled in the FSL over the past two seasons. It also included two players selected by fans as part of a competition by the club.
The move marked a significant ramp up in Manchester City’s strategy to engage with Chinese fans, as the market has become a key priority for the football club.
Manchester City Football Club’s chief marketing officer Nuria Tarre told The Drum, “China is a very big market for us. It is a huge growth market for football with almost 60% of the population interested in football. It is a growing market and it is a target for us to acquire new fans and also to convince new fans to follow Manchester City.”
The launch of an eSports team in China is an extension of a strategy Manchester City has been rolling out globally to engage with its core target audience. However, given China’s dominance in the eSports market, Tarre admits it was only a matter of time.
“Our research shows one of the key ways to engage young fans is through eSports and that’s how we get to connect with our core audience of under 35-year olds,” says Tarre.
“The eSports market in China is the biggest market globally, 25% of eSports players are in China and actually they play a different game, which is different to the Fifa game eSports players play in the rest of the world.”
“We like to be seen as creative and innovative and we have a very strong digital-first strategy that applies to everything we do, so connecting with a community like gamers makes sense, especially in China.”
However, Manchester City is obviously not the only European football club – let alone sporting team - trying to engage and enlist Chinese sports fans.
Research by sports marketing agency Mailman which analyses the online presence of European Football Teams across Weibo, WeChat, websites, e-commerce platforms and apps to determine their influence has found the market is hugely competitive among European clubs. Manchester City’s arch-rival Manchester United has been named the most popular team in China for two years running, according to Mailman’s annual Red Card report.
Tarre is undeterred by this. “We know our brand is currently the third-fastest growing football brand in China, and our social media channels are relatively big, for example, we have eight million followers on Sina Weibo,” she says.
Tarre says the aim is to try and target a wider community including those they may not yet be following or supporting a European football team, as well as engaging with those that already do.
“It’s challenging. Firstly because it’s a huge market, but it’s also interesting for the sort of people we want to attract. As I already said, football is growing and 60% of people are interested but in China fandom is an interesting concept.”
While its common that Chinese football fans will follow more than one football club, other factors such as Chinese fans inability to physically engage with the club by travelling to games can present significant challenges to clubs that are trying to create an emotional engagement with fans.
In a bid to rectify this, Manchester City, like many of the European football clubs, are now undertaking regular player tours of China to play matches, show off trophies and ensure meet and greet sessions with players to build engagement among fans.
Manchester City also organizes regular viewing parties where fans can meet to watch key games together and these events are usually attended by a legend of the game or a current but injured player.
“Building engagement with football fans is very different to consumer brands because we have to engage emotionally. We know that entertainment is important to get fans inspired and we knew that winning is important, especially in China where Chinese fans are quite sensitive to winning brands and winning teams in sports. So, maintaining a sustained record of winning is important to helping us grow.
“Authenticity is also very important with Chinese fans and being transparent in the way you connect and share with fans is hugely important. We want fans to help us grow the club so programs such as our loyalty rewards platform and the channels we use to engage fans are hugely important,” says Tarre.
As 2019 ramps into gear, the club will continue to build on its fan engagement in China and ideally, says Tarre, “We would like to have more games.”
In 2017, The Drum took a look at the growth of eSports, including Manchester City FC's plans to grow its brand through the sport. Watch the full documentary below.