Is There Room for a Permanent Tie Between Sport and Esports?

No one can deny that the growth of esports over the past few years has been absolutely incredible.  You’ve heard the popular milestones numerous times, I’m sure: Championship tournaments have amassed more viewers than the NBA Finals and the World Series. Multi-million dollar broadcasting deals have been reached. Events have even been shown on television. Prize pools for single events have reached a staggering $24.6 million. And steadily over the last few years we’ve seen high profile names begin investing in esports. At first, just single names such as Alex Rodriguez and Shaquille O’Neal. Then came the ownership groups and franchises, such as the Philadelphia 76ers.


And now recently, the next step has been taken, with the NBA partnering up with 2K Games to create a full-fledged esports counterpart to the NBA, the 2K League, which features teams backed by 17 current NBA franchises, and has already begun its qualifier process. Last week, as is so often the case, the MLS has decided to follow the NBA’s pioneers into esports by partnering up with the FIFA game franchise to create the eMLS. This rapid succession has caused concern for some advocates for esports. It raises the question: is traditional sports’ sudden dive into esports an absolute good thing?


The initial reception of eMLS has been overwhelmingly positive in the first few days, especially following the signing of the first two players. This in itself is a good sign. However, there was positive reception for the 2K League, as well as for the Madden NFL Club Championship, in which all 32 NFL teams have official involvement. And while one could consider the investment wave as a toe in the water to test the temperature, all three of these more permanent commitments have been made without a true pioneer phase — that is, none of these events have taken place yet.


Unique Challenges

The Madden NFL Club Championship will be the first of these to take place, with 32 finalists grabbing the sticks in late January. Madden events have held up to 200,000 concurrent viewers, a minor blip compared to some games, but understandable given that the game is less popular than its counterparts, and that there is little overlap with the generally older NFL fanbase. The more popular games will likely draw more fans. But what happens if the hype for sports involvement just isn’t there? The danger of traditional sports involvement lies not in the abrupt jumping in, but the potential for an abrupt pulling out — a circumstance unlikely with the long-time NBA supporters, but more thinkable with the traditionalist NFL, and the small-but-growing MLS.


The NBA’s 2K League will be the second acid test, with its draft mirroring the NBA’s annual tradition in March. The 2K League has by far the most overlap with real-life fans, but also by far the lowest number of views per event, reaching only into the thousands. The upside here is that while the game itself may not have a ton of fans, its top players have small but dedicated communities, which the 2K League has set itself to take advantage of by fielding full teams of five, potentially drawing in all of the players’ fanbases. Similarly, the 2K games have sold fairly well around the world.


Mike Labelle, New York Red Bulls’ first esports athlete


The eMLS doesn’t have this benefit, with each team only signing a single player, who will play from the comfort of their own homes rather than moving to the city they’re drafted to in order to live a pseudo-star athlete lifestyle. The MLS fanbase is generally pretty young, but significantly smaller than that of the NBA. Similarly, part of what makes FIFA so popular is that both the video game and the sport are popular worldwide. But that might not translate to fans for a system with ties to a comparatively small domestic league here in the states very well, considering many FIFA players have are fans of teams from other, more popular leagues such as Premier League.


What can be done

These challenges are not indictments of the leagues. Traditional sports has long brought opportunities that esports do not. Brand recognizability is by far the single greatest asset that these teams have. Tapping into the existing fanbase gains extra advertisers for free, as word spreads around the community. Tweeting about it is good, but teams and leagues can go further in tying the digital achievements in with the real life ones they began with. The Sacramento Kings created a training facility for their 2K team inside the Golden 1 Center, where the basketball team plays. The Golden State Warriors formally introduced their League of Legends team, Golden Guardians, at halftime during a basketball game. Was it awkward? Sure. Were there some fans not paying attention? Almost assuredly. But if you put something new in front of 20,000 people, you’re bound to drum up at least a little interest that wasn’t there before.


The financial resources these leagues have are also essential. Viewers aren’t afraid to express disdain for low-quality broadcasting, and are likely to turn it off entirely. Just ask all the League of Legends fans who, among other factors, cited constant technical issues as a reason for not tuning in to IEM events, causing the tournament to cancel League of Legends for the time being. Meanwhile, Overwatch had so much funneled into it from the beginning that Twitch spent $90 million to be able to broadcast it. Producing entertaining and effective programs for their brand new leagues can create a snowball effect for viewership, and it’s very doable.


Golden Guardians being introduced to Warriors fans at Oracle Arena


The TL;DR of this is that we don’t know how these franchised sports game leagues will function in the esports landscape. If unsuccessful, the cancelling of leagues could waste an incredible chance to cement the ties between esports and traditional sports for good. On the flip side, successful runs could lead the industry into the truly golden era we’ve expected for years now, in which public exposition to esports mirrors that of, say, Korea. Back to the question of whether it’s a good. The answer still seems to be a resounding “Of course. Growth is growth after all.” But the optimistic are cautiously so, knowing that the enthusiasm is welcomed, but speculative. Only time will determine the path. And for those curiously looking on, that time is coming soon.

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Mr Fidori

Obsesses over League of Legends a little too much. Writes for Break the Game. In that order.