MLS is using FIFA 18 esports to grow fanbase and advertise their league… Can we do it too?

As a FIFA player from South Africa, I have always found it a little disheartening to look for South African teams in the game, and only ever find Orlando Pirates and Kaiser Chiefs. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against these teams – I’m really glad that at least they are included. However, where are Sundowns, Wits, Supersport or even Polokwane City?

Now perhaps you laugh at this idea, thinking: “Who would want to ever play as those teams?”. Almost every time you see two gamers about to start the wildly popular FIFA game in SA  you will notice they select the same old teams we all know and love or love-to-hate: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Man United, Liverpool… (you know the culprits). And yes I’m also talking to you with your supposedly ‘hipster’ Atletico Madrid or Borussia Dortmund picks. True, these teams have fantastic players (I mean, who doesn’t want to control Messi as he easily dribbles past three sleepy defenders and curls a left-footer into the top corner?).However, I think in most cases, teams are selected mostly because everyone knows who they are. Exposure is a powerful influencer… and that brings us to how digital football is becoming linked more and more to real-world football. Or should I say soccer?

Last month, the MLS (America’s Major League Soccer organisation) announced the creation of its own esports organisation linked to their real-world MLS league. Currently, 19 of the 23 MLS clubs will be involved in the eMLS, with each club sending one player representing them to each competition. Clubs can select their FIFA 18 Pro in various ways including holding a tournament or selecting an established eSports player and signing him up for their club. Winners from the eMLS competitions may find themselves entering the FIFA eWorld Cup – the culmination of FIFA related annual esports competitions.

Samit Sarkar, writing for Polygon, recently took an in-depth look at this MLS’ venture into the esports arena. Within this detailed article a few points really stood out to me:

America is not a country that traditionally had soccer as one of their main national sports. Historically baseball, basketball, American football and even ice hockey were always more popular. However, this seems to be changing. Interestingly, soccer is appealing more and more to the younger generations of US kids, and these are the same kids that are playing video games. In fact, playing FIFA may be influencing the popularity of the real-world game. One of the more surprising findings in the article stated:

MLS fans are twice as likely to be gamers as the average sports fan in North America… about two-thirds of avid MLS fans pointed to EA’s FIFA series as the first thing that got them interested in soccer — a higher proportion than… respondents who said that playing the sport got them into it.

The MLS has developed a strong relationship with EA. Not only was the MLS’ new logo debuted back in the FIFA 15 game, but James Ruth (senior director of properties and events at MLS) quoted in the article, mentions that:

“… a major reason The Journey: Hunter Returns—the career mode in FIFA 18 — took protagonist Alex Hunter to the LA Galaxy was that the league worked with EA to make it happen… Whether you’re playing in Indonesia or Korea or Denmark, you’ve got some reverence for our clubs now.”

The final stand-out point from the article for me was the comment made by Ruth that the MLS sees playing the game with your team as an expression of your support for that team:

“MLS now considers playing video games — for instance, playing with the San Jose Earthquakes in a FIFA game — to be a statement of fandom, just like buying a jersey.”

So in summary, not only is a key demographic using FIFA as a gateway to the real sport but the FIFA game is actually being used as kind of broad advertising tool, exposing audiences around the world to teams in the US. And now, with a more in-depth story mode, perhaps even creating an emotional connection to these teams. This connection is essentially growing a team’s fanbase around the world.

So could we apply anything from this model locally? Yes, maybe our local league does not have the financial power to be competing with the marketing might of MLS. However, it seems clear to me that ensuring our local teams at least appear in something as seemingly trivial as a video game and setting up some sort of small esports tournament is a no-brainer. It clearly has the power to grow a key demographic within our own country, create an awareness of the league around the world, and even get more people interested in the real-world game. Win-Win-Win… right?

Who knows, if SA followed just some of these steps, the next career mode in FIFA could be the story of Henry Pietersen, Thabo Dlamini or possibly even Gugu Sithole and their rise from young upstarts at Chippa United FC, to their crowning glory of helping Banyana Banyana or Bafana Bafana lift the World Cup Trophy after their record move to Manchester City. Sounds like something to put the hours in training for…

Nintendo Nerd, sharing my love of Mario with the world one pixel at a time.

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