The Rise of Soccer eSports

Written by Tom

The Virtual Revolution: How eSports is Shaping Soccer

If you follow soccer, chances are you’ve heard of and probably played FIFA (the video game, not the governing body).

In around 2010 EA Sports finally won out after a long-running duel with Japanese competitor Konami, becoming the unequivocal market leader in the world of virtual soccer. Since then, the game has evolved to the point where an oblivious parent might take a second glance at the screen – spotting the colored arrows that hover above a player’s head maybe – before realising that their kid is controlling the action.

But there’s a serious side to the rise of FIFA. No longer are EA’s boffins in Vancouver working tirelessly to match the realism of a real soccer match – the sport is struggling to keep up with the evolution of its virtual counterpart.

Why FIFA is changing the game

People aren’t playing FIFA for the fun of the gameplay alone. This is why of the roughly 5.9 million copies of FIFA 18 sold in its first week on the shelves, 78% were purchased in Europe – the continent with by far the longest-standing and most ingrained football culture in the entire world.

So why do European kids play the game religiously when for many of them it’s just a ten minute train journey to see a world class soccer match?

The virtual world allows for something that the real game doesn’t – control.

You can pick your players, their kit, their manager, the ball, the stadium, the formation, your tactics, and even your opposition if you’re so inclined.

Football in the real world can feel boring by comparison – watching two or three games a week seems slow when you can play 15-20 games in a day on your XBOX, controlling every player on your team at once.

There’s also the issue of cost. For a top BPL team you’d probably pay £50 or so to see a match, so the one-off £60 price-tag for FIFA seems like much better value. BBC research shows that the price of tickets is putting young people off the sport.

If you’re a kid, why bother leaving the house when FIFA offers so much more for a comparatively reasonable cost? For some the video game is becoming more preferable to actually playing the sport itself. In FIFA, there’s no chance of kicking your soccer ball into a tree or through a neighbour’s window. You don’t get cold or wet either.

It’s not just kids who are becoming fed up, adults are playing more FIFA as well. This is in part because these long-time fans of Europe’s most successful clubs are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the faceless men making decisions behind the scenes. United fans want the Glazers out, Liverpool want their American owners to slash ticket prices, and Chelsea fans want their board to give Conte more freedom in the transfer market.

The response

EA Sports realised the commercial potential of what they had created in 2016, and began to reposition FIFA as a serious eSport (a competitive video game) rather than just something you play at your mate’s house at the weekend.

Beginning with FIFA 17, EA released a new competitive mode called “FUT Champions”. Gamers must play 40 games in a single weekend as a part of the “Weekend League” to qualify for a ranking on a global leaderboard. The best of the best are invited to play at tournaments EA sets up, including the FIFA eWorld Cup. Since the world of competitive gaming is one of short attention spans and careers that last only a few years, this tournament is held annually – not every four years like its real-world counterpart.

All of a sudden, clubs realised they were being left behind. They would need a squad of gamers as well as a squad of real players if they were to avoid their young fans taking their valuable attention elsewhere.

Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Valencia have all signed individual gamers or formed official eSports teams to play under their team’s emblem in the past three years.

These signings aren’t really about picking up prize money, after all the $200,000 USD cash reward for the winner of the Fifa eWorld Cup is pennies compared to what clubs play their players in the top flight. Instead, it’s all about image, and appealing to fans who play the virtual game. Manchester City for example makes videos of their players playing FIFA (although this is in part also because EA sponsors them).

It’s not just clubs who are making moves in the eSports arena The biggest leagues in the world are looking to get in on the action, for fear of missing out. The Premier League only netted £4.4 billion from BT and Sky for the right to screen matches for the next three seasons, down from the £5.1 billion they received in 2015. It’s not just that going to games is too expensive – the way young people and adults alike spend their free time is changing rapidly.

In Australia, the A-League recently debuted the E-League, a FIFA tournament that runs in parallel with the real competition.

Luke Bould, head of Commercial, Marketing and Digital at Football Federation Australia, said that the league aimed to “…build a competition that provides FIFA competitors with the ability to represent their favorite Hyundai A-League clubs and create more fans for the Hyundai A-League”.

Clearly then, the A-League felt the need to step into the world of eSports to engage with fans and continue to capture the interest of young audiences. Whether this strategy will succeed in ensuring that the professional league continues to be relevant the long term remains to be seen.

Embed from Getty Images

What’s next?

Obviously there’s still going to be a place for top-flight football in Europe, America and Oceania for a long time to come.

However, as Generation Z grows up, soccer clubs could be forced to cut ticket prices to keep the stadiums full. This could see the end of exorbitant season ticket prices at Britain’s top clubs, like Arsenal’s ~£900 offering.

If we see a seriously steep drop in interest over the next decade, cable TV providers will be forced to lower their bids for broadcasting rights even further than they already have done. The major leagues would then be  to choose a free-to-air channel to show their games (assuming one made a bid), in order to rekindle the public’s interest in the sport.

All in all, competition from eSports is a good thing for fans of the beautiful game. Even if you’re not one to watch FIFA championships on Twitch, increased competition in the industry should benefit the end consumer. As fans’ preferences change, so will the ways in which we access and interact with the sport – hopefully for the better.

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