It's something we're seeing happening more and more often, sports teams and reputed sports personalities are getting involved with eSports. But why? What is the benefit? Already we've seen teams like FC Schalke 04, VfL Wolfsburg, West Ham United and - very recently - Manchester City get involved with competitive gaming by bringing on board eSports players to compete. Then there's renowned sports stars getting involved, too. Ex-baseball players Alex Rodriguez, Jimmy Rollins and even basketball superstar Shaquille O'Neal have put their names (and cash) to eSports teams. In the eyes of the mainstream news media, eSports doesn't yet have the sense of legitimacy as a sport that the rest of the industry gives it. As much as these teams and players provide credence to competitive gaming, what is it they see that the rest of the mainstream audience doesn't? We take a look to answer that very question.
Sports Teams & Their eSports Brand
eSports is unique when compared to traditional sports. Look at it this way: football, tennis, basketball or what have you all have individual rules, ways of playing, high profile players and sport-specific governing organisations. eSports is the same, too, but despite the differences between games - just compare competitive League Of Legends to FIFA - they still all fall under this one banner of 'eSports'. The result is well known and recognisable teams that span a wide range of games. Fnatic, Cloud9, Evil Geniuses, SK Gaming, Counter Logic Gaming and many more all have squads dedicated to many different titles. You wouldn't see the name Manchester United plastered onto another other than associated with football. Tennis players represent themselves, their sponsors arranged through agents not as part of a wider team. And sure you might get investors dipping their toes (or wallets) into a range of teams, but you won't see the organisations themselves openly crossing over into different sports. So eSports gives them an opportunity to expand into different areas, to take their brand further than just the sport they're known for playing. The more that brand is known, the wider its fanbase. The wider its fanbase, the more money it can make. Because, make no mistake, it's always about money.
Reaching Fans On A New Platform
This ties into our point about brand recognition, but in furthering a team's brand awareness it can reach fans that might otherwise not have been considering supporting a sports team. If you pay attention to the industry of eSports - rather than just the tournaments themselves - then you'll notice more and more big name brands are getting involved with competitive gaming. Coca Cola sponsors League Of Legends; Red Bull sponsors StarCraft 2; Intel has partnered with ESL for the Extreme Masters event. There's a lot of money in sponsoring eSports, but why? The answer is fairly simple, and a marketing expert could explain it all with a single word: Millenials. You might despise the term, but if you're reading this then it's highly likely you are classified as a Millenial. What that means is that your the target demographic for eSports advertising, and brands are focusing on this area of entertainment because it's a market that just doesn't crossover into existing media. TV, film, magazines and all that nonsense is falling to the wayside thanks to streaming entertainment, of which Twitch is a huge portion. But that's advertising, so why are sports doing this? Well the reasons are the same; in a bid to expand recognition, these sports teams are targeting the younger Millenial audience. While a sports team might not be looking for the same financial gain that advertisers might be, if it can get younger fans of its eSports team then they hope that they will then take that fandom into its traditional sports team, too. Which, ultimately, means more money.
Making Money Through Merchandising
Speaking of money, it's worth drawing attention to a significant portion of any sports team's income: merchandising. Teams like Manchester United sell shirts, caps, branded footballs, keychains, fridge magnets - frankly anything that can have a logo on it will likely be sold as Man United merch. And while they might be one of the biggest names in sporting, they're not the only team to make money off merchandising. By expanding into this Millenial market, more money can be made from merchandising. And let's face it, gamers and fans of eSports aren't exactly fickle when it comes to their passion. If a sporting team can make it big with an eSport squad, then the potential profits it can make from branded goods will surely increase. It might sound cynical to say it - and it certainly won't be the biggest reason a sports team decides to enter the world of competitive gaming - but the correlation will be noticeable. Think about it this way, though. While the likes of Fnatic and Cloud9 might be recognisable, as organisations they're still young, still inexperienced, still figuring things out. By comparison, traditional sports teams have a huge infrastructure already in place. They've been selling merchandise for years, they know how it works, how to draw attention to it, how to sell. Even the biggest eSports teams are still learning about all these things, they've often not had experience in such challenges of running a team brand - and this gives sporting teams an advantage.
eSport Tournament Winnings
Again this likely isn't a considerable reason as to why sports teams are integrating into pro-gaming, especially if you consider the sheer scale of prize pools when it comes to traditional sports. Football's Premier League can net £70+ million for the winning team and basketball players for the NBA can earn up to $1.5 million per person if a team wins (in a sport with caps on salaries). That's comparable to eSports, of course. Dota 2 regularly breaks records with a crowdfunded prize pool of well over $10 million for the last few Internationals. And even though that's an exception due to its funding method, many other Premier tournaments offer between $1-3 million in prizes. That might be insignificant to the very best sports teams, sure, but the cost involved with running an eSport squad is also much lower. There's no cost of owning and running a stadium, there's a much smaller number of employees behind the scenes and the wages are significantly lower - even for the superstars of eSports. And bear in mind that it's not yet the superstar teams that are diving into eSports. There's talk of Manchester United getting involved with Overwatch, and Manchester City and FC Schalke 04 are definitely significant teams in the world of sports. As such, these teams have a chase to bolster their income with a much lower cost risk than traditional sports might require. The financial barrier to entry is much lower, and that flexibility means that the risk won't feel too threatening to a team's survival. These days there are so many costs involved with a high profile sports team that any further opportunities to mitigate those costs will be a huge benefit.
Is eSports The Future?
If we're to ignore our inherent cynicism for a second, it's perhaps heartening to consider that for many sports teams it doesn't seem as though monetary gain is the significant reason behind moving into eSports. So far we've only seen bigger clubs and sports stars put their name to a squad or player, and with all their cash they're capable of putting towards this they could just as easily shop around for one of the best teams. But no, instead they've often just looked for young talent, the sort of players who are showing promise but are yet to truly prove themselves. It's the same mindset a team might use to approach a new player for their football team, and the reason they're doing so is likely not for potential earnings. If that was the case they'd just buy a top-tier squad for short-term gain. Instead it's likely that they've seen the potential of eSports. Already it's a multi-million dollar industry, and it still has much further to go. These teams want to get in on the ground floor of competitive gaming; they've seen the future, and while there will always be a place for traditional sports - of course - eSports is one day going to be just as prevalent. They want to be a part of that revolution.