This weekend will see the final of the ePremier League broadcast live on Sky Sports. How did we get here and what could happen?
When Liberty Media took over Formula 1 in 2016, it knew that the sport was struggling to reach a younger audience and they saw an opportunity. This led to it launching its first foray into eSports with the F1 eSports Series a year later. The competition was seen as a huge success. It had over 66,000 entrants and 84% of them were under 28 years old.
But an altogether more surprising outcome was the reported viewing figures of the F1 eSports Series achieved - the same as an actual live broadcast of the 2018 Singapore Grand Prix in the UK (1.2 million across selected TV networks and 3.2 million people on a dedicated live stream vs 4.4 million viewers). It’s incredible to think there was as much interest in the virtual championship than an actual Championship race.
When Brendon Leigh won the series, he became a star in the making - even though the coverage didn’t match the viewership. A 19-year-old gamer, he’s now fully signed up by Formula 1 constructors champions Mercedes AMG Petronas and works at the same factory alongside Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. The mainstream esports movement had truly begun.
Enter the second movers
A year later, the Premier League followed suit, knowing this was a space it needed to get into. In December 2018 it announced the inaugural ePremier League. Played on FIFA ’19, the 20 Premier League clubs each ran an online tournament find a representative for both PlayStation and Xbox. It gave clubs the opportunity to be creative - we worked with Chelsea who wanted to go big on their search for a star gamer from grassroots fans. Some clubs went the other way and signed pro-gamers while some did nothing at all. We saw some previously signed pro gamers that didn’t beat the so-called amateurs.
Now we’re fast approaching the final of the ePremier League (ePL), with 40 players representing 20 clubs battling it out to be the ePL champions. We’re about to see the biggest moment in UK eSports and it’s going to be broadcast live on Sky Sports. If the ePL gets anywhere near the eWorld Cup’s viewing figures of 29 million online viewers then the winner has the opportunity to go where no Fifa gamer has gone before in the UK.
Fueling this formalisation of eSports
The growth of gaming is fueling eSports - Copa 90’s modern fan report stated that more 16-19-year-olds are gaming (74%) rather than playing football (68%), and Fifa has revealed that 200m gamers are playing football online around the world every Sunday.
Some might argue Twitch, the world’s leading live social video platform and community for gamers, is driving this growth and interest. It’s probably the biggest media available to marketers in the world that they don’t know about. 15m daily active users, 355 billion minutes watched and 20% of the content is eSports related viewing. At any one moment, over a million people are watching Twitch content, which is mostly live streaming of people playing and reacting to games.
You could argue it’s the changing face of influence. Ninja is the biggest influencer on Twitch with over 11m followers but despite his numerous brand deals, he’s not yet a household name. Let’s look at a name most will know - England and Tottenham Hotspur footballer, Dele Alli. The Premier League star is a regular streamer on Twitch and he perfectly represents the convergence of football and gaming culture. In recent seasons he's brought celebrations from Fortnite to his on-pitch performance. And Epic Games have taken his actions and put them into the game as emotes.
This convergence with football culture in the same as when football and music collided when Pogba x Stormzy dropped. Dele regularly live-streams games with teammates to the watching world. Alongside his Adidas deal he has gaming hardwear (HyperX) and gaming chair (Secret Lab) sponsorship deals. He’s also seen at every major gaming launch whether it’s in LA for Call of Duty or London for FIFA. This is the new face of (e)sports marketing.
The beginning of a cultural revolution
This is just the beginning of the relationship between eSports and sport. The great thing about gaming is that anyone can play if they’ve got a console and some time. You don’t need teammates or good weather. You don’t need to be a star. A 13-year-old girl can beat a 35-year-old man. You don’t need to find crazy money to go to watch a game in person; you can just login into Twitch for free. We’re in the first generation of something that is a cultural revolution.
And it’s going both ways. From football into gaming and gaming into football. You just have to take a look at Hashtag United. SpencerFC started out as a YouTuber, created a social football team, entered them in the football league and they now have their own eSports team with one of their players (Hashtag Ryan) representing Chelsea in the ePL final. They are a media company who love (e)sports.
In the case of Formula 1, it surely can’t be long until we see a gamer taking to the track and racing against Verstappen and Hamilton.
As for football, only time will tell if young fans will care about the gamer that wins the ePL this weekend, in the same way, they love Kane or Sterling. If they do, brands will come a knocking - but to win at the eSports game, they have to learn about this completely new audience before diving in.
Gareth Leeding is group creative director at We Are Social Sport.