Esports continues to grow at a rapid pace. Predictions for 2017 have stated that the total financial size of the esports industry will rise to almost $700 million this year. Although far from generating the super size revenues of Premier League soccer, or the behemoth cash of an American sport like the NFL, esports is beginning to eat away into the audiences of less popular sports. American men under the age of 25 now watch almost as much esports as they do ice hockey and baseball, and some mainstream sports are beginning to take note.
Danish football club FC Copenhagen may not be the biggest name in European soccer, but it looks like they may well be one of the more forward thinking outfits. It formed Team North after signing the Danish players from Team Dignitas in early 2017. Team Dignitas has recently, of course, been bought by the Philadelphia 76ers of basketball’s NBA.
Rick Fox, a former basketball star with LA Lakers, bought a League of Legends team in 2015. Other European soccer clubs with an esports connection are FC Schalke 04, of Germany, Spanish club FC Valencia, and Turkish giants Besiktas.
Alisher Usmanov is a part owner of Arsenal FC, a club currently experiencing a disappointing season but still one of England’s most iconic football teams. He is also the 71st richest man in the world. In 2016, he invested $100 million in Russian esports team Virtus Pro. His company, Esforce, has also spent $5m on an esports venue in Moscow.
There are entire sports in the UK which would do almost anything to get that kind of investment. It is both a sign of how esports is developing, and also an indicator of how mainstream sports business investors and organisations may well become more heavily involved with esports in the future.
The links make sense for both sides of the equation. Esports is still viewed as something of a niche interest – not many mainstream sports fans, especially those over the age of 35, have much idea of just how big the phenomenon is becoming. For ambitious Esports organisations, linking with a football club or baseball franchise can bring massive benefits in terms of publicity.
Mainstream sports clubs have large and loyal fan bases, and well-developed PR structures. Most clubs in most sports have access to sympathetic journalists with large readerships. A couple of well-placed news reports and features could do wonders for the profile of Esports.
Mainstream sports also have access to huge sponsorship deals, often with betting or sportswear companies. The betting industry has already begun to see the potential value of esports, with companies like Betway offering tailored products and promotions to esports customers. Sportswear giants like Adidas have begun to appear on esports jerseys too.
Greater links with mainstream sports organisations gives esports teams greater access to this kind of financial boost, and opens the door to thousands of potential new fans too. If a soccer club like Manchester United were to launch an esports team, then it would have a huge PR advantage over its rivals before it even played in a tournament.
European soccer clubs like AC Milan and Barcelona already run teams in sports like basketball, so why not Esports too?
As with most change, though, this could be a double edged sword for the Esports industry. Bigger publicity might mean masses of more money, but would teams be able to retain any independence if they were playing under the banner of, for example, Barcelona? How would it affect the mentality and culture of Esports, which is distinct and very different from mainstream sport?
Only time can answer these questions, really, but aspects of the sport such as recruitment of players might change radically. Big organisations can offer really big money to players. Could we see a transfer market situation develop in Esports? Cash changes how individuals view loyalty. It can also affect the balance of sports.
If one team suddenly found itself as the branded branch of a massive mainstream sports club, it might develop the financial muscle to monopolise talent. It would then be short hop to monopolising tournament wins and prize money.
Players could find themselves being promoted alongside top soccer or NFL stars. There is already much of this kind of thing in mainstream sports, with soccer stars turning up at rugby league games in Australia, for example, to help promote both games.
What is certain is that Esports is attracting more attention than ever from mainstream sports business people, who can smell an opportunity. But many mainstream sports struggle with how wealth is distributed amongst teams, and bigger teams with more money do always tend to rise to the top.
This poses big questions for Esports, and it will be interesting to see how and when things develop.