At least where esports and soccer are concerned, last weekend witnessed one of the more extraordinary news stories of recent times. Usually when the two are combined, it is to do with the latest FIFA 18 esports tournament. Not this time.
In last weekend’s Swiss Super League clash between the current champions, Young Boys of Berne and FC Basel, fans of both teams were involved in an unusual protest. During the game, the referee was forced to stop play and allow ground staff onto the pitch to clear an assortment of gaming consoles, controllers, and tennis balls that had been launched from the stands.
Rather than the shadow of football hooliganism rearing its ugly head again, this was instead a protest aimed at showcasing fans’ displeasure at rumours that Swiss professional soccer clubs and authorities — including the league in question — are thinking of investing in esports.
What are the rumours?
Swiss Super League are considering setting up their own Swiss Esports League, predominantly based on soccer (and most likely the latest FIFA incarnation). In this case, each of the teams in the Swiss Super League (of which there are just 10) will be expected to have their own esports team or professional to represent them in the tournament.
Fans argue such a decision would put an unnecessary financial burden on clubs and that the Super League’s interest in esports runs counter to their football interests.
One Young Boys fan group, Ostkurve Bern, named after eastern stand where home supporters of Young Boys Berne watch the games, released a statement, reported on Forbes.com, where they said that any proposed investment in esports “has absolutely nothing to do with our sport and the values of our club.”
It is fair to say that the powers-that-be in Swiss football have not just thought up this scheme off the top of their heads. Four teams, FC Basel, St.Gallen, Servette, and Lausanne already have their own esports representatives. That is 40 percent of the league already represented.
FC Basel fans have been among the most vocal in voicing their displeasure at their club’s interest in the esports phenomenon. Experts speculate this could be for a number of reasons, such as eroding the traditional image of a football club or viewing the club as a brand, rather than a soccer club. There is also, predictably, consternation about how costly this is to clubs, in terms of funds being diverted into esports, rather than spent on the team.
Fans cite the growing costs of watching their teams in Switzerland, the increase in television subscription packages to watch the top teams in action both domestically and across Europe, as well as the increasing price of away tickets and football shirts and other football-related products.
However, fans may well be pointing their accusatory fingers at the wrong industry.
Let’s take the first and key argument that fans hold about the cost of setting up such an esports league.
The top level of football in any country is generally affluent. The money generated at this level is enough to pay many professionals, several thousand pounds (or euros or dollars) a week. I am willing to bet that these salaries, which seem to inflate year on year, regardless of how well a club does in terms of trophies and success, far outstrip what a club would pay to an unknown esports player.
As for setting up the league, perhaps the size and financial clout of the much-publicized Overwatch League has addled the minds of Swiss soccer fans. Setting up a small domestic league involving 10 individuals representing each of the 10 Swiss Super League clubs could be done at a very small cost.
Young Boys, for example, are participating in this year’s Champions League. For simply reaching the group stages, they are going to receive €15,250,000. On top of that, for every point they claim in the Group Stage, they will earn a further €900,000. In addition to that, if they reach the Round of 16, they will receive another lump sum payment of €9,500,000. Finally, if they progress further (which is unlikely), then they could earn up to potentially an additional €37,500,000.
Admittedly, the money Swiss teams earn from TV deals and sponsorship, as well as for performing well in domestic competitions, is much smaller than for teams in more lucrative leagues and locales. But again, the sheer dollars should be ample and available.
Erosion of club identity
If clubs believe fans can be won by promoting a club as a brand, rather than as a club, then they misunderstand how football loyalty works. Critics, though, are overlooking one key issue: esports can actually increase a club’s fan base through exposure.
In October 2014, EA Sports looked at the impact of FIFA on MLS teams in the US. The results they found were startling.
- 34% of EA Sports FIFA players became fans of a club after playing FIFA.
- 50% of players of EA Sports FIFA are more interested in professional football after playing the game.
- From FIFA 14 to FIFA 15, there was a 112% increase in the number of times players played with Major League Soccer teams from one version of the game to the other.
Far from eroding identity, a strong representation within esports can actually enhance it.
The cost of watching football
This is perhaps the most spurious aspect of Swiss fans complaints. Esports has no bearing on the cost of watching football in Switzerland (or indeed anywhere else in the world). Nor does it influence how much TV companies and broadcasters will pay for TV rights or how much companies will pay to make or sponsor shirts.
However, football fans’ blinkers can often be firmly on when it comes to finance in football. This is why when you hear that your club will receive a lot more money from the TV deal the league signed for the next few years, you should not be surprised when the cost of your TV subscription deal increases.
Similarly, that large kit sponsorship deal your club signed that smashed the previous record … where do fans think Nike, Adidas, Puma, and other companies will make back that investment? It’s from increasing the price of shirts they sell to fans.
And when your club signs a new player and smashes their wage structure to accommodate him, don’t be too surprised that it’s funded by increases in ticket prices.
While fans protest esports in Switzerland, it is hard to fathom what their complaints are actually about. Under scrutiny, such grievances bear little resemblance to the reality of the situation.