Bad timing, but eSports can ultimately help the A-League

An E-League gamer celebrates a goal Source: Twitter

Who thought a simple video game could be so divisive? The FFA found out the hard way last week.

In fairness, the FFA’s public relations are a mess right now – as bad as the lowest ebb of the old Soccer Australia – as everything they do gets manically demonised by a volcanic set of stakeholders.

However, they must have thought they were on a sure-fire winner when they announced the commencement of the E-League, Australian football’s foray into eSports.

Instead, the backlash was furious. Many fans and prominent commentators lashed the governing body for putting their energies into promoting a virtual product at a time when the actual product was failing.

They’ve got a point. There has been zero marketing of the A-League this year. And if there has been, we’ve missed it. Their “spend” has been extraordinarily ineffective.

That hurts, because never has football needed better and sharper marketing brains than it possesses right now.

It’s a travesty that the A-League’s best marketing campaign is now 13 years old: “Football, but not as you know it” was the talk of the country in mid-2005.

While the “We Are Football” message resonated at first, it was de-authenticated by the actions of the FFA, and subsequent campaigns are best forgotten.

The car-crash “You’ve gotta have a team” debacle, added into whatever marketing was in play this season, has drained the league’s positive image.

It’s widely rumoured that the FFA has scaled back promoting the league this season in a revenge play against the A-League club owners, as evidenced by the forgettable season launch in Port Melbourne.

Intended to have a “community” vibe, it only succeeded in looking amateurish.

So when the FFA suddenly decides to throw its resources at promoting the launch of the E-League, you can understand why fans of the A-League were mystified and many downright angry.

I sympathise with them and hear their voices completely. The timing made for a terrible look.

However, if there’s one small request I do have, it’s not to take out their anger on eSports going forward.

I am not a gamer and I suspect most of the people commenting angrily on social media are not either. But I’ve studied the business model closely over the past few years and it’s impossible to ignore.

There is a huge market out there that is heavily invested – emotionally and financially – in eSports. By 2020, the eSports industry will be worth $1.87 billion globally. That is serious money. And it will probably double in value very quickly.

ESports should be viewed as an additional entry point into the sport, not something that detracts from the physical product.

The success of the Madden video game franchise globally has probably been the number one method for converting non-Americans into NFL fans.

Now that it’s launched, I expect the E-League to be a fairly self-sustaining operation, with extremely low costs but with excellent audience penetration within the target market.

If you’re an A-League club, suddenly you’ve got an extra way to appeal to sponsors and another mechanism through which to connect with fans. Perhaps even convert them.

And in case you’re thinking this all feels very much against the fabric of football, it’s worth noting that Paris Saint-German, Manchester City, Schalke, Ajax Amsterdam, PSV Eindhoven, West Ham, Wolfsburg, Besiktas and Santos all have eSports teams.

No, it doesn’t replicate the real experience of being in the stadium. But it’s a very real experience for gamers.

Trying to pretend they don’t or shouldn’t exist is just delusional. People will engage in whatever way they find meaningful.

The challenge for the A-League, as a real world product, is a different one. It’s about finding ways to make the match day experience totally compelling.

Unfortunately, for a raft of reasons, the joy of attending matches has been diminished and the FFA – and the clubs – must look at ways they can get the turnstiles ticking again. Let us be clear: eSports, event attendance and TV ratings exist in different spheres.

So let’s not take out our anger on the digital space, because eSports are here to stay, whether you take part or not. And it’s only going to get bigger and bigger.