Don't just sign a FIFA16 gamer if you want to be taken seriously in eSports
There's an obvious rationale here: football clubs play football, so signing an eSports player who specialises in a football simulation game seems a natural fit. The FIFA [game not federation] FA Cup recently climaxed on the pitch at Wembley Stadium and attracted solid coverage from clubs and national media, albeit somewhat of the man-bites-dog variety.
[Edit May 18: 3 days after this post was first published, Bundesliga club FC Schalke 04 announced the 'takeover' of League of Legends team Elements; so there you go- someone's already being more bold in this space]
From the club side it feels an innovative move, there are lots of big numbers associated with eSports. There's undoubtedly an overlap between the gaming audience and sections of clubs' current and potential future fan bases, particularly for anyone looking at the US or Asian markets (which is everyone).
And yet... the FIFA franchise is far from the biggest game in eSports. The real audience (and participation) numbers are for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games like League Of Legends and Dota 2, first-person-shooter Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and strategy titles Starcraft II and Hearthstone. Simulations don't even register on the chart below from Newzoo, the sector's pre-eminent analytics company.
In April, I moderated a panel at the European eSports conference in London. We looked at the opportunities and challenges for traditional sports teams in entering the eSports market.
Alexander Müller, MD of the German professional eSports organisation SK Gaming was unequivocal about the merits of sports clubs entering the market via simulation games; I'm paraphrasing (video of the panel is apparently going online in the future, if you're dead keen...), but essentially he said there was zero credibility in this approach within the eSports community.
He advocated a model where clubs partner with or invest in a whole team from one of the 'big 3' games (LoL, Dota 2, CS:GO). Clubs should place them in their academy, with access to all of the pro-sports facilities from performance monitoring to diet and nutrition to mental strength training.
It's perhaps easier to see this model working outside the UK, where the 'sports club' is more common (several German and Spanish clubs run professional teams in basketball, hockey, handball etc.). Developing eSports teams in the academy environment should only be beneficial for the players, and will carry much more credibility with the eSports audience (both participants and viewers).
Indeed, Turkish club Besiktas did just this in 2015 (listed just below the table-tennis, gymnastics and chess teams on the club's website). Their team has since rebranded twice though, and has not been any sort of international success on the League of Legends pitch.
There are other challenges for traditional sports clubs entering non-simulation eSports. CS:GO pits terrorists against non-terrorist teams, which is not a brand association you'd choose lightly. Dota 2 and LoL are more fantasy-based however, and whilst they're still contested on battlefields there's less of a reputational risk.
Seven League have talked about eSports with multiple traditional sports clients in a range of countries, and have received a whole range of responses from total incomprehension to outright ridicule of the idea that this qualifies as anything like 'real' sport.
Arsenal's approach to reaching this audience with credibility has been to utilise players like Hector Bellerin who are enthusiastic gamers themselves, and create content with them that feels entirely genuine; this is a totally reasonable route in.
Whilst there will no doubt be more sports teams who take the simulation game route, with diminishing PR returns, I'd agree with Alex that real bold step will come from the first clubs to fully invest in bringing an eSports team into their academy and treating them just the same as any other pro-athletes. The potential audience reach, engagement and subsequent digital revenues have to be higher than the hockey team. Surely.
If you're an eSports or a traditional sports organisation interested in the opportunities around collaborations or crossovers, contact 7L/me on email@example.com