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Why have Scunthorpe United set up an esports team?

The chance to join the world of eSports and create their own team was an opportunity that Scunthorpe United simply couldn’t miss out on.

Within the last few years, esports has really taken off and is now regarded by many people as the most up and coming sport. Yes – it is a sport. There are players competing all over the world for huge cash prizes, in front of crowds that some athletes – from other traditional sports – could only dream of performing in front of. In many cases, they are earning a lot more money, too. The highest payout for a FIFA tournament was in the FUT Championship 2017 Finals and came in at a whopping $400,000. But what does that have to do with Scunthorpe United – a reasonably small club, in the third tier of English football?

Well, in 2016, esports made its move into professional football, when West Ham United and Manchester City became the first UK clubs to sign FIFA players, to represent them on the global stage. The players have competed in some of the biggest tournaments all over the world for cash prizes, and have gained online fans for themselves and their clubs along the way. Fast forward over two years and now every single Premier League team has some kind of involvement in esports, alongside various big clubs across Europe, as well as a few in the English Football League – including Scunthorpe, of course.

Why Scunthorpe?

It is no secret that most clubs in the lower leagues of English football struggle to get big crowds through the door, so they have to maximize their attendances by whatever means possible. It is no different for Scunthorpe, an industrial, steel town, in North Lincolnshire, with a population of around 82,000 people – and that’s including the surrounding villages. Although the football club stands proudly within the town, the Iron’s attendances are around 4,000, on an average Saturday afternoon, meaning that their stadium, Glanford Park, is often barely half full.

Scunthorpe announced in September 2018 that they were excited to be setting up an esports team, and invited fans of the club and fellow gamers to take part in trials to join the side. This is something that has been in the pipeline for a while, though, according to Rob Noble, Head of Marketing, Ticketing and Retail at Scunthorpe:

“I have had my eye on esports for the last two years or so. It has just been very difficult to ignore, to be honest, with how the industry is going and developing. There has been various bits and pieces that I have listened to, as well as a number of newsletters from the sporting industry, that detail how much the esports industry is really growing.” 

Noble admitted that esports isn’t really a main priority for the club at the moment in time, as they had to justify an ROI (Return on Investment) for setting up the team. After an extensive period of research at the start of 2018, he began talks with their now esports partner, Virtual Pro Gaming (VPG), who offered them an easy route into the industry:

“It was about February-time that we started speaking with VPG and they offered a fairly easy route for us into esports. Before that, I had just been seeing how things were developing and we spoke to a couple of companies who approached us with solutions to facilitate tournaments and that kind of thing. But those companies wanted to charge a fee for it, so the proposal that I had for the board, after working with VPG, basically costed nothing. So, it was basically a route into the industry that didn’t cost us anything.” 

Benefits for the club

For a club of relatively low stature, there have to be benefits of creating an esports team, especially given that Scunthorpe are unable to throw big money at a project such as this, as some elite level sides have done previously. However, the Iron’s primary reason for getting involved with esports is very similar to most other professional clubs.

The BBC Sport Price of Football study in 2017, revealed that young football fans are being put off by the cost of matchday tickets. The BBC conducted a survey, in which 1,000 18-to-24-year-old fans living in Britain were asked how they engage with football, and 55% of the fans said that they had stopped going completely or go to fewer games because it was too expensive. Meanwhile, 61% of the participants said that they engage with the sport through playing either console or computer games, so it’s no surprise that more clubs have now jumped on the esports train.

Young people engage with football mostly through gaming (Credit: BBC Sport)

Rob Noble revealed that the club’s board do not personally know much about esports, but after hearing about the figures and demographics involved, they were extremely keen to let him pursue it and set up a team. He admits that it is very much about appealing to a younger demographic initially:

“At the moment, it’s very much kind of, a brand awareness thing, with the demographic and a younger target market. It is getting Scunthorpe United associated with the various different esports teams out there so, for example, there’s not many at our level that are doing it at the moment.

“The FIFA eClub World Cup that we entered into, we were competing against Man City’s professional team and they were all in that competition across Europe, so it’s not just that local market. We are looking at building the name of Scunthorpe United in that industry and people do make that association when they do see the football club side of it.”

Although the primary goal will be to get people engaged with the club, Rob Noble said that there are other potential avenues for Scunthorpe Esports further down the line to help it grow:

“Further down the line, if we can get that engagement with that target market, then there is the potential to commercialise it and get sponsors on board to help support it and build on it.”

Rob Noble

Arron Dellosa, founder and CEO of Virtual Pro Gaming, the Iron’s main esports partner, believes that having an esports team can help clubs such as Scunthorpe grow and interact with their fans and the community:

“What I say to clubs, is that it’s good (esports) for fan interaction and fan engagement because there are a lot of players out there who do want to play for a club, especially in the community. It’s a really good way of helping the fans feel like they are connected to the club.

“We help each club to monetize videos on the youtube channel and then also with sponsors. It’s the more the club interacts with people and work on stuff like social media, the more they will get out of it. They will then get higher numbers watching the streams, make more revenue on videos and their own sponsors from the football team, some of them may actually want to get involved with esports as well.”

Trevor Keane, whose company Sportego also recently partnered up with Scunthorpe, said that esports is an opportunity for football clubs to extend their brand. Sportego helped Leicester City defender, Christian Fuchs, set up his esports academy last year, as he became the first professional footballer to have his own team. They have also worked with a number of other professional clubs, as partners and consultants on the best way for them to get involved with the industry.

Trevor Keane states that, for clubs like Scunthorpe to get the most out of esports, they have to recognise who their audience is and how they can use the industry to appeal to them:

“I think it’s about extending your brand and it’s reaching your new demographic and it’s recognising where your audience is at. Scunthorpe will have fans that are on Twitch, fans that are on Youtube – so it’s about creating content that draws them back into your club. You have got to create an environment where, on a Saturday afternoon, they have a reason to be following something associated with Scunthorpe.

“On a Saturday, you’ve got Rugby, you’ve got cinemas, nights out on the town with the guys and you also have football – so it’s recognising what you’re up against and how you can fit into the conversation. There’s a natural alignment between sporting esports titles and football clubs.”

 

Almost 90% of Generation Z (mid-90s – early 2000s) children own a game console (Credit: Julian Krinsky)

The partners

As previously mentioned, Scunthorpe teamed up with Virtual Pro Gaming, the leading virtual football website, to set up their esports team. VPG specialises in teams competing in an 11v11 format, known as ‘Pro Clubs’, where 11 FIFA players from one team, take on an opposing 11. The company works with a number of professional clubs, including Queens Park Rangers, Fleetwood Town, Oxford United – and they have plans to soon be working with clubs at the elite level.

Alongside the benefits that there are for Scunthorpe in their partnership, there are also advantages for VPG, as Arron Dellosa explains:

“My aim is just to get as much users as possible. We get revenue from our premium services – so it’s not where people come in and have to pay, it’s optional. At the minute, because Pro Clubs isn’t the biggest game on FIFA, our aim is to get as many clubs involved as possible and as many users as we can, to grow the 11vs11 side of things. We set our targets high and we want to be the biggest esports company in the world and our next step will be to get permission from EA on running LAN events.”

League and tournament entries

With it still being early days for Scunthorpe in their esports venture, they are so far just dipping their toes into tournaments and have currently not been to or held any FIFA events. However, they have already completed their first season in VPG’s online leagues and managed to secure promotion to the Championship North.

The club have now started an academy team, to help bring through some other players and give more people the chance to be part of the clubs esports journey. Rob Noble detailed the importance of that:

“Alongside the first-team, with VPG they have started an academy team and a weekend league as well. Those two are a bit recreational, with a hope of getting the players towards the 11v11 main team.”

As part of the partnership with Sportego, the Iron agreed a deal to loan two players from Christian Fuchs’ esports team, who then competed in the qualifiers for this years FIFA eClub World Cup. Rob Noble talked about how this was a good step for the club:

“We went into partnership with them (Sportego) and had an agreement with them that they would loan us two players, to represent Scunthorpe United in the FIFA eClub World Cup. That’s one of the main EA FIFA tournaments, so it’s officially registered. They didn’t make it through, but it was a good experience.

“I think we, as an esports club, are kind of learning the industry and how the tournaments fit together, so it was good to be involved with. It’s certainly something from either our own supporter base, as in local Scunthorpe fans, or from our 11v11 team, that we can potentially get our own players to compete in those kinds of tournaments in the future.” 

Rob Noble confirmed that they are looking to start taking part in events at some point in the near future, as well as potentially holding tournaments at Glanford Park, which fans could take part in:

“We are looking to take part in events, but at the moment, it’s mostly about using people that aren’t looking for a lot of money. Until we get that financial backing behind it, it’s trying to find someone that might be willing to manage it, someone that has knowledge about esports and how to go about entering tournaments and which ones to enter. As such, we haven’t got a strategy behind it at the moment, but it’s certainly something that we are looking to develop in the next six months to a year.

“We are speaking to VPG about potential tournaments. They have just gone live with one at QPR, where it’s an online competition for the fans and they can enter into the QPR Esports Cup and then the final will be held at the stadium before a game. That’s kind of an avenue that we are hoping to go down as well.”

 

Trevor Keane recognises that you can’t get young fans through the door for the professional team just through them representing and engaging with the FIFA team. He does, however, shed a light on how you can get them more involved with the club, though, through their love for gaming:

“Do you convert a Scunthorpe FIFA player that casually follows the club and plays FIFA if you make him a FIFA player – and he suddenly wants to pay into the turnstile to get into the club? The answer is no. But what you can do is you can ledge off his love of FIFA or other games, whether that is League of Legends or Fortnite and create a situation where he wants to be involved in the clubs infrastructure.

“A stadium at a maximum where he has two games a week, so five days of the week predominantly could be dormant. Esports gives you an opportunity whether that is through arenas, bolt-on stadiums or a part of the stadium where gamers can go and it gives you an opportunity to tap into that demand and create something that adds value. You have to remember as well that there is potential for auxiliary income, as the prize pots within esports rises.”

How the team operates

When people talk about esports teams, a common misconception is that people just turn on their console and play – but that isn’t the case for the Scunthorpe first-team. There are 17 players registered to represent the side, each of which are contracted for 50 games to the club. They are currently not on a salary, with the team so far being run quite cost-effectively, but in the future, Rob Noble said that they will be looking to offer up prize money if possible.

The team is managed by one of the players, Danny Pierce, who has the arduous task of picking the starting line-up, formation and makes sure his side are ready to compete. Then, on game-day, the players come online to do a bit of training, warm up and get ready for the game. Given the Iron’s quick promotion up to the Championship North, they must be doing something right.

Danny, who is 28-years-old and works full-time in his home city of Liverpool, took on his role in the squad after previously managing a team called Serpico, who also compete within VPG’s leagues. Danny revealed that he and the rest of the players are enjoying representing Scunthorpe and that he has been impressed by the clubs commitment to esports:

“I love FIFA in general, so to be able to represent a pro team, on the game, it’s really good. A lot of the players on the team are all really happy with it as well. Scunthorpe have been great. Rob Noble has been back and forth with me a lot, he has given us support and helped our social media side of things really grow.

“They seem very interested – it’s not like they’ve just entered it and drifted away – they want us to do well. They entered two players into the eClub World Cup, so it seems like they are enjoying esports and they are trying to get involved with it as much as possible – in all the different aspects – not just Pro Clubs.”

How far could Scunthorpe esports go?

It is clear that there are potentially some big benefits for football clubs, even those in lower league football, of creating an esports team. But how far can it really go?

Danny Pierce predicts that if Scunthorpe Esports can get up to the Premier League in Virtual Pro Gaming’s Leagues, then it could really take off:

Next season, hopefully, we will get promoted and be in the Premier League – and then I think it could really take off.

Danny Pierce

Arron Dellosa believes it would be good to see Scunthorpe Esports get promoted to VPG’s Premier League, where they would come up against some big clubs:

“They have just got promoted to the Championship North, so that’s great for them. I’m sure they will be able to do well at that level and then the sooner they get into the Premier League, they have reached the top level of Pro Clubs. In the top league, we give away currently about £2,000 in prizes and then we do a Champions League with all the teams around the world. There are some really big teams in the Premier League, though, we have got Sporting Lisbon’s official esports team, Istanbul Basaksehir, QPR and also the company Lenovo have a side.

“It’s good for clubs to get involved now because once it takes off, these teams will have been working together for a while and they can have success and win a bit of money. It’s all about working as a team in Pro Clubs, so they have a real advantage by joining now, in what will 100% be one of the biggest markets in FIFA.”

Although esports is relatively new in the Football League, it appears to have taken off at the elite level. The Premier League clubs will now all be competing in the ePremier League tournament in March, where they will each have representatives of their teams battling it out to be crowned the champions. There has also been talk of an esports league to run alongside the Premier League and the Football League.

Rob Noble assessed whether there could be scope for this within the Football League:

“Yeah – certainly. I think with FIFA, the Premier League are certainly seeing the value in it. I think the EFL have had conversations about some kind of league – so I think the main football sporting bodies are getting involved with it as well and see the value in it. That will again, kind of, dictate how we move forward with it.”

Noble admitted that it’s hard to judge which way Scunthorpe United will go with esports in the future, as the industry is continuing to grow – but he stated that they are open to other doors, should they open:

“There is, obviously, talk of it becoming part of the Olympic Games, so that might generate more interest in it. It’s seeing what sort of direction, what benefits we can gain from being involved in esports and the commercial value. We might get a partner on board who have experience in other games so that we can divert away and it’s not just about FIFA. But certainly, short to medium-term, I think it will definitely be focused on the FIFA side of it and see where it goes from there.

“I think that there is quite a lot of unknowns at the moment, in the industry about how and where it will go, but it certainly seems to be going in a very positive direction at the moment, which is why we want to be involved with it from quite an early stage.

It is relatively clear that, although Scunthorpe United are not yet pumping money into esports, they have a plan together and are taking esports seriously. Time will tell on how the industry will align itself alongside professional football, but Scunthorpe have jumped on the trend early and are in the perfect position to ride the FIFA esports wave, wherever that may take them.

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