EA Sports FIFA franchise is a huge hit with soccer players and non-soccer players alike but it is not the only game in town. And some professional soccer clubs are embracing the off-field FIFA and other gaming pastimes as a way to grow their on-field brand.
VfL Wolfsburg was one of the first clubs to see the potential. The Bundesliga club signed three of the top FIFA players over the last 2 years, Benedikt Salzer, Daniel Fink, and Dave Bytheway to pull on the club jersey but not to take the field but to hit the couch.
“Our claim is ‘football is more’ – not just 90 minutes on the pitch,” Wolfsburg Managing Director Thomas Röttgermann told The Red Bulletin. “For us, eSports was a win-win situation – we could be a first mover and create new and innovative content for our young fans at Wolfsburg, and also get more fans into eSports. We want to show we take eSports seriously.”
And these gaming players are not kept in the shadows of the club but a face of the brand much like players from the starting XI.
“I did a signing in a museum with (Andre) Schurrle and Max Arnold and I thought that everyone was just going to get the signatures of the players and walk off, but that wasn’t the case,” Bytheway told The Red Bulletin. “Quite a lot of people wanted to get my autograph as well, which was a surprise.”
Wolfsburg is not the only team pursuing eSports. West Ham signed Sean ‘Dragonn’ Allen earlier this year. The 2016 FIFA interactive World Cup runner-up was brought in with the regular fanfare of any new signing with an official presentation that included his own number and jersey.
“I am delighted to be joining West Ham United as their official e-sports player,” the 24-year-old Allen told West Ham’s official website. “This is a massive move forward for me. I have been playing competitive FIFA for a very long time and this is the biggest thing ever to happen to me.”
First team manager Slaven Bilic added; “This is a big move for West Ham United,” he said. “I have heard that Sean is a big player in the e-sports arena so I am delighted that we have managed to secure his services.”
Manchester City FC is also looking to win silverware on the pitch and on the gaming screen. The Abu Dhabi owned club is not bashful about buying talent and their fourth signing of the summer was Kieran ‘Kez’ Brown, the Citizens first eSports player.
“I’m going to livestream on twitch, I’m going to be making videos for Manchester City’s YouTube channel and I’m going to be playing some City fans and representing City in future tournaments, which I’m looking forward to,” the 18-year-old said on the club’s official website. “This is an opportunity which not many people get the chance to do and I couldn’t turn it down.”
Soccer clubs are not merely focusing on FIFA, however.
FC Schalke 04 turned their attention to League of Legends that has over 67 million players globally. They signed team Elements players Etienne “Steve” Michels, Berk “Gilius” Demir, Rasmus “MrRalleZ” Skinneholm and Hampus “Sprattel” Abrahamsson, while adding Hampus “Fox” Myhre to the roster.
“We have noticed that the level of professionalism in eSports has continued to grow over the past years. Particular noteworthy is the development of structures within League of Legends and the flagship League of Legends Championship,” Moritz Beckers-Schwarz, chairman of the board at FC Schalke 04 Arena Management GmbH said on the club’s official website.
In Spain, Valencia have accepted the challenge of eSports with a roster of players that compete in League of Legends, FIFA, Hearthstone, and Rocket League.
“eSports has quickly become a multimillion euro industry and Valencia once again has shown themselves to be on the cutting edge by setting up a team that will fly the club colors around the world,” the official press release read. “The phenomenon has made a dramatic impact in Asia and eSports professionals in countries like South Korea are treated similarly to La Liga stars in Spain. Arenas are packed out by spectators, and also with the help of major sponsorship deals, the industry generates thousands of millions each year.”
The roster includes César Bautista García Fénec, (Jungler) Francisco Javier Madero Heredia Moryo, (Top) Melvin Spaan StoMe, (Mid) André Marinho Falcão, Ramos Costa Lastwolf (AD Carry), Isaac Flores Alvarado PePiiNG (Mid), Adrián Pérez González Adryh (AD Carry), Ignacio García Viñas Itsi (Jungler), and Javier López Campos Reaper (Support) with a 7-person technical staff headed by Víctor Santamaría “Ukelele” and Head Coach Marcos García “Wiskinto”.
The Eredivisie is building teams with Ajax and PSV Eindhoven investing in players.
Ajax’ legendary goalkeeper and current director Edwin Van Der Saar presented the country’s 5x FIFA national champion the #39 jersey at an event at the Amsterdam Arena.
“Koen is a multiple time FIFA champion that inspires youth and has a personality that fits our club here at Ajax,” Van Der Saar said on the club website. “We are always looking for new ways as a club to bind us to our young fans. We will be helping Koen with support not only in major tournaments, but also organising activities with our fans. We believe it is important to encourage both digital and real football. These two worlds can perfectly coexist and complement each other.”
PSV is taking a unique approach. Rather than signing a proven player, they plan to host a FIFA 17 tournament and select their first signing from the pool of players.
And the trend only continues to grow.
Paris Saint Germain announced this month they are partnering with French media company, Webedia, to create an eSports franchise. Sporting Portugal is also looking to develop a team.
But it is not all fun and games. Turkish football club, Beskitas was one of the first club’s to sign a team in League of Legends team Aces High in 2015 but by the start of 2016 they opted not to renew the players’ contracts. The players were not phased apparently as they rebranded a Supermassive and still compete in the Turkish Champions League.
And similar to how the love of the game (the one of the field) spread around the globe, eSports fascination is spreading too. Brazil’s Santos is working with eSports group Dexterity for teams to compete in Call of Duty, League of Legends, Battlefield 4, and Crossfire.