Premier League clubs have dipped their toes into the world of esports in recent years and it certainly doesn’t seem to just be a phase. The process all began in May 2016, when West Ham United snapped up gamer, Sean ‘Dragonn’ Allen, to become the first ever UK football club to sign a professional esports player. Since then, every single Premier League club now has some kind of involvement in esports, alongside a number of clubs in the English Football League and several more across Europe.
What are the benefits for clubs?
There have been questions raised with regards to why the Premier League clubs are getting involved with esports – but the industry is now beginning to answer a lot of those questions on its own. A huge aspect behind that is the business side of esports, which has seen significant growth in recent years. According to Christian Brindley, an esports lecturer at Staffordshire University, the market revenue has surged from $130m in 2012 – to $906m in 2018 – and is projected to hit $1.65 billion by 2021. That means that there has been a year-on-year growth of +38.2%, so it is clearly a hugely profitable industry for professional football clubs to have entered into.
Notably, EA Sports’ FIFA gaming franchise, which the clubs are predominantly looking to build their esports future around, appears to be going from strength to strength. Across a quarter of a century, the series has sold over 260 million copies of the games, making over £3 billion in the process. Astoundingly, in just a five-year period, it went from selling 14.5 million copies of FIFA 13, to over 24 million sales of FIFA 18.
Alongside those figures, esports is being used as a tool to improve the branding of clubs as, on the whole, football is becoming much more business based, rather than just being simply about what happens out on the pitch. Furthermore, video gaming has been a huge part of the advancements in technology over the last two-to-three decades – and whether people like it or not – it has changed the way young people socialise and spend their free time. Football clubs, as they look to appeal to a younger demographic and gain new supporters, have targetted esports as one of the best possible areas to help them succeed in doing just that. With that in mind, Christian Brindley said:
“With football clubs entering and investing in esports, it allows for them to expand their brand and revenue. Young people under the age of 35 are now spending more time watching online games, instead of watching traditional sports. If clubs form partnerships with esports companies, they then have the ability to tap into that revenue stream and potentially reap the benefits.”
Depending on the stature of the club and how much they invest in esports, the financial rewards can be relatively high. Some clubs are just currently riding the wave and seeing where it goes, while others are staging tournaments and have their esports players competing all over the world.
After setting the trend within the Premier League, West Ham United continues to be one of the industries leading clubs. In late 2016, they hosted the first ever gaming tournament that involved professional clubs. Players from the likes of Manchester City and Sporting Lisbon took part for a cash prize of £1500 – and it was held at the Hammers’ London Stadium. Then, in late 2018, West Ham held a FIFA tournament that was open to the public, which was sponsored by the clubs official investment and esports partner.
Over 1000 people entered the tournament at the qualifying stage, before 16 finalists were invited to the Olympic Stadium – to battle it out for a cash prize of £10,000 – from a prize pool of £25,000. Events such as this gather interest from not just fans of the club, but esports followers across the UK and the world.
When asked about whether there is currently big money for football clubs in esports, Christian Brindley explained that:
“It is very dependant on the approach that the clubs take. Some of the clubs could earn money via merchandise sales, but that really depends on the popularity of the players within their teams. They could also generate revenue by having their players stream regularly and take a cut of the advertisement as well as endorsements.”
The partnering companies
Whilst the clubs are largely reliant on the advice and guidance from esports companies, as they look to gain a march on their competitors, they are not the only ones who benefit from those partnerships. Christian Brindley stated:
“Esports companies also benefit from the partnership, as they can use a strong brand such as Manchester United to expand their own brand. It means that a lot more eyes could potentially be on their business and it generates interest.”
One business that has taken big strides as an esports partner is Sportego, who originally started out as a sports consultancy and fan engagement company. Since taking the plunge into esports in 2016, Sportego have worked with a number of British clubs, including a few in the Premier League, as well as some of the biggest clubs in Europe’s top leagues. They also helped Leicester City defender, Christian Fuchs, launch his ‘NoFuchsGiven’ Esports academy in 2018, to become the first professional footballer to have their very own esports team.
The leading consultant and owner of Sportego, Trevor Keane, has been a key figure behind the development of his company within esports. They previously held their own tournaments, one of which was held in the ground of FC Twente – but their role within esports has since changed, says Trevor:
“We have been advising leagues, clubs and other players, on how they can enter the space, focusing on bringing endemic brands to these players and clubs – and also identify potential talent and opportunity for them. We found that, from a fan engagement perspective that a lot of clubs were kind of asking ‘how do we get a player down to the ground, to engage with younger audiences?’.”
As esports continues to evolve and new strategies develop, Trevor has seen a huge upturn in interest, since he got involved with the industry:
“It’s interesting in that it’s grown massively in terms of the interest and what clubs want to do with it. I still think that there’s a bit of fragmentation – especially around sporting titles, in terms of the monetization of it. You really haven’t entered a consistent world where, rights holders are selling their products, to linear TV stations. You are still relying on the Twitch/Youtube model, which is obviously more of an advertising and revenue, share-led world. There are challenges in and around that – but in terms of actual interest – it’s peaking, for sure.”
There is potentially big money to be earned by professional esports players, but the prize pools involved with FIFA are yet to reach the heights of other esport titles, as Christian Brindley explains:
“FIFA as an esport does not have as large of a prize pool as games such as League of Legends, Defense of the Ancients and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. The highest pool recorded so far came from the FUT Championship 2017 Finals, and was valued at $400,000.”
In contrast, Epic Games, who published the hugely popular ‘Fortnite’, announced in 2018 that they would be funding $100m worth of prize pools within the first year of tournaments for the game. With the prize pools in FIFA being much lower, it makes it difficult for some professional esports players. For the players at Premier League clubs, some teams pay their players a salary, while others only pay with prize money. Although, the players are often taking an average of around 70% of the sales from the likes of merchandise, streams and appearances.
Huzaifa Munshi, who joined NoFuchsGiven last year, believes that there are definitely opportunities and large cash pools for esports players to make a living out of gaming. However, according to Huzaifa, there is one potential large barrier in the way when it comes to FIFA:
“The only downside is you would need a considerable amount of money to actually invest in the game at the beginning, to try and compete with the top level pros, in terms of having the best players on the game. If you are able to do that, whilst being good at the game, you can definitely qualify for events and start to make life-changing amounts of money.”
Joey Poole, who is a 19-year-old Sports Journalism student at Northampton University, recently qualified for the ePremier League playoffs with his favourite team, Wolverhampton Wanderers. He believes that a crucial part of being at the top level of your game as an esports player, is having the right mindset:
“It’s very important to play warm-up games and be in the right mindset. If you have had a long, tough day outside of playing FIFA and then you come back and you try and play an important game of FIFA, then your mind is gonna be all over the place. At that high level, you need to really maintain your focus 100% of the time.”
There is often a misconception made at the elite level of esports, that players should be playing different games in order to improve their stature within the industry and appeal to fans across other platforms. Whilst this is the case for some, Trevor Keane believes football clubs should treat their players as just FIFA players, as opposed to them playing other games as well:
“You’ve got to respect the industry for what it is. If you are a very good footballer and you’re representing your club on the pitch – how would you feel if somebody in the club came up to you and said ‘yeah, we think you are a really good footballer – but we also think you should play full-time Rugby’?
“These guys put in 20-30 hours a week, they play seven-to-eight hours a week on a Saturday in the weekend leagues, then they will often play another seven hours on a Sunday in qualifiers. It’s very difficult for professional athletes at the elite level, of any esports title, to be across other entities or publishers.”
Similarly to Trevor Keane, Christian Brindley states that it is not in the best interests of esports players to compete across other platforms:
Interestingly though, Premier League clubs have been linked in the past with creating their own esports teams for other titles, where they would sign professionals who specialise in those games. There are clubs in Germany and France’s top divisions that have taken this approach and Christian Brindley talks about why this could be profitable:
“Although FIFA does have a large player base with around 12.3 million in 2017. As large as that number is, League of Legends has a reported player base of over 100 million, so it makes sense for a club to expand into games with larger audiences that could then lead to them expanding their brand to players who do not follow or watch football. Paris Saint-Germain have competed within Rocket League and DoTA 2, for example.”
The ePremier League
The announcement of this years ePremier League could be a huge step for esports within professional football. All 20 teams from the top flight of English football, are set to take part in the tournament, which will be hosted live on Sky Sports in March. Fans of the clubs all around the world were invited to compete for a place in the competition, with a number of them making it through to the qualifying rounds. The best 16 players following qualification for each, will then battle it out for a place in the finals in London, where they will take on esports players from the other clubs.
FIFA esports commentator, Brandon Smith, has grown to become one of the biggest names in the industry, alongside his co-commentator, Richard Buckley. The pair regular commentate on some of the major tournaments across Europe and have been involved heavily throughout a number of the Premier League clubs’ playoff matches. They are set to commentate on the live ePremier League finals and Brandon believes it is a huge opportunity for FIFA esports in the UK:
“I think the one problem is that a lot of clubs don’t know what esports is and how to do it or how to get involved, hence why you see different approaches, from different clubs. This year, obviously some will really go for it, like the Man City’s, the West Ham’s, the Wolverhampton Wanderers, the Man United’s. You know, a lot of them will go big and some clubs will still be learning – but it’s a big learning curve – for a lot of clubs.
“I think next year will be even bigger. But this year is gonna be just as big. Every club has to host an event in their home stadium, you know, tens of thousands of people applied online to get there and it’s down to the last 40 players, for a weekend event in London and it’s on Sky. There’s so much potential for fans to get behind their FIFA players and for clubs to really grow in the space as well.”
The ePremier League is also a huge opportunity for the FIFA players, as well as the clubs involved. Joey Poole admitted that it wasn’t originally a particular goal of his to become a professional player, but that he did spend several hours playing FIFA 19 after it first came out. The University student is now dreaming of a potential full-time job in esports and says that it really could change his life:
“Well… it would change a lot of things, really. Obviously, I am at University. If I was to get in and be offered a contract by the club, that would become my full-time job. I would try and finish University, but when an opportunity like that comes along – for Wolverhampton Wanderers – my favourite club. It would mean a lot – it’s kind of hard to put into words.”
Huzaifa Munshi has also qualified for the qualifying rounds of the ePremier League, where he is hoping to represent his favourite team, Leicester City. Huzaifa admitted that this is only his first year of taking competitive FIFA seriously, so he is delighted to have come so far already and believes that the ePremier League could have a big impact:
“I’ve already seen loads of people who hardly knew what competitive FIFA was, start to take an interest in it because they were taking part in the ePremier League. Hopefully, it is the beginning of something big for the UK FIFA scene and people finally start to see how big esports actually is.”
Wen Jun Chiang, who also plays for NoFuchsGiven, states why the ePremier League will help esports grow within the UK:
How far could FIFA esports go?
As it is still early days for FIFA and professional football clubs competing at the highest level of esports, it is so far unknown as to how far it could go and whether it could mount a challenge against some of the industries top games. However, with the vast growth in interest and the volume of players competing to get into the biggest FIFA tournaments, the future looks bright.
Christian Brindley believes FIFA could challenge at the top level of esports but states that EA will have to continue investing:
“It has the potential because with the reported 12.3 million player base in 2017, it places it above CS:GO (11.9m), PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (6.8m) and StarCraft 2 (2.4m) and it was considered a Tier 2 game in 2018. If EA continues to invest in events such as the FUT 19, then I am sure more people will watch – and with more viewership –the stakes will be higher.
Joey Poole is also of the opinion that FIFA is on the up and could begin to battle it out with some of esports’ most-watched games soon, but takes a different viewpoint:
“For me, FIFA is on the up. I think it has the potential to break into mainstream media because it is something people already understand. People watch football – they watch the Premier League all the time. The problem with the likes of League of Legends and Counter-Strike is that people don’t understand them if they are pushed into the mainstream media because, obviously, they have never played it. So, for me, the esports that will really take off and challenge the top end of viewership, are the esports that people already know.”
Brandon Smith agrees with Joey Poole in that FIFA could be a more marketable esport for mainstream media outlets, but highlights the growth that the game has already seen over the last couple of years as a big step towards closing the gap:
“I think the good thing about FIFA, is that it’s more of an understandable esport. The player base is insane and I think it’s got a very big job to do if it wants to catch up with Overwatch and League of Legends – but those esports have been around for such a long time, especially League of Legends and they are like a traditional esports. FIFA is coming in as a sporting esport title and there are loads of differences – so sometimes it’s hard to compare them and contrast.
“I think FIFA has definitely made strides over the last two years with the growth level it’s had – from one tournament a year at $20,000 – to multiple tournaments throughout the year, for prize pots of up to $200,000 per tournament. It really has gone kind of crazy and I think it really is going to get bigger and bigger.”
Although FIFA esports may still be largely in the shadows of some of the blockbuster games within the industry, it is certainly taking steps in the right direction. The fact that some of the biggest professional football teams in the world are pumping money into the sport, in an attempt to appeal to and engage with a younger demographic, can only be a positive. Professional football and FIFA esports will continue to work together and this is something to certainly keep your eye on over the coming years.
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