Still think video games are for recluses and dweebs? A console and a couch may not seem that much, but literally millions of fans, more than enough to fill a stadium, are now cheering for virtual soccer players from their own homes. And as eSports (and the prize pools) continue to balloon, we might be seeing a FIFA eSports league get as much attention as its gigantic multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) bedfellows.
While the FIFA eWorld Cup, a relaunch of the FIFA Interactive World Cup (FIWC), was only launched in 2017, the league has been bringing players together since 2004. First emerging in South Africa, its first champion was Brazilian Thiago Carrico de Azevedo who had a chance to meet his real-life idols in Zurich, Switzerland. The FICW’s number of participants grew steadily until it reached the half-million mark in 2009.
But not many saw the big break that was 2010. From half a million, FICW saw three-quarter of a million participants fighting it out on a virtual playing field, setting a Guinness World Record as the biggest gaming tournament in the world at the time. Its momentum only grew, as the league made it to Los Angeles in 2011 and hit a million in 2012. At the 2014 Rio World Cup, fans saw the virtual and the real worlds collide when the FIFA 15 demo was released. Less than a year later, Abdulaziz Alshehri took center stage as the champion of the 2015 Grand Final. It was becoming clear by then that things were getting serious.
The numbers tell the story. Senior VP and general manager of EA’s competitive gaming division Todd Sitrin revealed to Gamesindustry.biz that their viewing numbers, in fact, tripled last year. He accounts this explosion in viewership to the game’s accessibility, particularly within the eSports realm. He said, “If you look at DOTA and League of Legends, those are very complicated, deep, inaccessible viewing experiences. So, there’s a difference right off the bat in terms of the ease of use.” Unlike in MOBA games, most audiences know how football is played, and some even have emotional connections to particular clubs and players. FIFA is among the easiest games to watch for anyone new to eSports, so as the industry grows, it is only expected that new viewers will funnel into more accessible games.
While FIFA is not yet in the same ballpark as other eSports behemoths such as League of Legends and DOTA, it seems to be going in that direction. The FIFA Ultimate Team Championship Final of October last year was the game’s biggest tournament in its history. The FUT Champions Weekend League already saw six million players participating since FIFA 17 was launched. Moreover, Redbull also reported that the games are now being broadcast by sports channels such as BT Sport. As such, the rising interest in virtual sports simulation games is feeding into real-world soccer, with English clubs creating their own eSports teams.
Manchester City has signed its second FIFA eSports player, 19-year-old Shaun ‘Shellzz’ Springette, to represent them in the ePremier League qualifications. Among the biggest and most successful clubs in England, City is predicted by bwin to finish second in the Premier League this year behind Liverpool. City is stacking up talent both on the field and in their eSports franchise to reach more sports and gaming fans. Wolverhampton Wanderers have also signed with Dutch eSports company Bundled to recruit eSports players, citing the move as a “huge opportunity for the club to engage with fans in new and exciting ways.” We expect lines between eSports and traditional sports to blur further as the intersecting markets collaborate in pulling in more audiences.
So, what does the rise of FIFA in eSports say about the current eSports landscape? One thing is that gaming may become more commercialized, as we have already reported here on Word of the Nerd regarding Challenger and other monetizing efforts in eSports. But if there is one thing we could say with certainty, it is that eSports is gaining legitimacy alongside traditional sports. More importantly, this may mean more audiences from both industries crossing over. For football fans and gamers alike, this certainly is a win.