Not content with competing for major honors in the world of football, English juggernaut club Manchester City wants to do the same in esports.
The club signed its second Fortnite player Konrad Skram last month to its esports team, where he will compete alongside Aidan “Threats” Mong, who joined in October 2021 — another sign that the gap between competitive gaming and professional sports is narrowing. Moreover, it shows how football clubs are starting to take more calculated risks in their efforts to reach esports fans.
And it’s not hard to see why. Early forays from football teams into esports were conservative to say the least, opting to stay close to football and focus on competitive events for the Fifa football series. The results were mixed at best. The Fifa franchise may have a huge global fanbase, but that hasn’t always translated into successful esports events. As a result, it is not among the top esports viewed globally and is not as popular outside of Europe.
“That’s why some clubs, which invested into creating their own FIFA rosters, have stopped or scaled down their esports operations,” said Evgeniy Roshchupkin, CEO of esports organization Tundra. “Most of the Premier League clubs now don’t have regular FIFA teams, but only participate in annual ePremier League tournaments.”
Something had to change for Manchester City.
The first real sign was in 2019 when the club did a deal with esports entertainment organization Faze Clan. Not only did the deal introduce the club to an audience that was just as interested in the lifestyle around esports as they were the competitions themselves, it also gave them an expert to help guide them further into esports.
The move seems to have paid off. So much so that the club’s owners City Football Group signed an experienced and successful esports organization Blue United Corporation, the owners and operators of FIFA Esports team Blue United eFC in Japan, earlier this year. Together, clubs and orgs create plans, which resonate with demanding esports and gaming communities — at scale. This involves looking at the wider esports opportunity, focusing on successful international esports titles and authentic community activations with esports fans, said Roshchupkin.
The other major milestone for City was last year when its esports team made the decision to compete in Fortnite Battle Royale, which triggered the aforementioned search for competitive gamers. If successful then the move stands to open the club to even more people. Indeed, there are few pieces of entertainment intellectual property that have the reach and cultural cache that Fortnite boasts. For example: a record 15.3 million concurrent players took part in the conclusion to the Marvel-themed fourth season of the game in 2020, while more than 3.4 million watched it all unfold on YouTube and Twitch, according to Fortnite’s creators. For context, the final episode of the final season of Game of Thrones was watched by 13.6 million viewers live on the HBO channel.
“We’re a football club and everything we do is motivated by the sport, but in recent months we’ve moved the esports team beyond Fifa and into Fortnite as well,” said Gavin Johnson, group of media director at City Football Group. “The Fifa series will continue to be our bedrock and we’ll continue to grow in that space but we’re also looking elsewhere too,” said Johnson.
That said, he’s adamant that the group won’t rush into new gaming titles beyond Fifa and Fortnite. Instead, it wants to ease into other areas, making sure it has a firm grasp of the fandoms of potential titles before reaching a decision on what to do.
“We will continue to look at other titles for our esports team, but there’s nothing to share at this moment in time,” continued Johnson. “We want to make sure that the foundations are in place.”
Part of those foundations are a support network for competitive gamers. So making sure that they are cocooned in the same sort of elite sporting environment usually enjoyed by their counterparts on the pitch. The esports team already has a mental coach, for example. In total, there are four dedicated execs who support the esports team, which is made up of another four players.
“We treat the members of our esports team with the same ethos that we do the players of Manchester City football club when it comes to the access to the physical, mental and logistical support to allow them to perform at the highest standard,” said Johnson. “That takes a lot of investment and commitment.”
Aside from the marketing wins that come with having an esports team, there are commercial opportunities too. Last month, both Manchester City and Faze opened up a pop-up shop selling co-branded merchandise at the former’s stadium. A year earlier, the club and its kit manufacturer Puma launched an esports clothing range.
“It is no secret that as the audiences of traditional sports age out, it is smart for traditional sports organisations and clubs to try and get into esports so that they can continue to grow their base — the average audience for many sports is ageing very fast,” said Kal Hourd, CEO of esports company Guild Esports. “As a result, it’s not surprising that a club like Manchester City is looking beyond FIFA and is expanding its esports focus; every esports title brings with it a distinct audience and the loyalties of a different demographic of fans.”
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