While the 2020 MLS season is still weeks away, the league is hoping its esports arm will quench fan’s thirst for soccer.
On Jan. 10, eMLS kicked off its 2020 campaign with its League Series One event in Philadelphia. It not only drew 1.1 million views on Twitch, but was eMLS’s most-viewed single stream broadcast to date on the platform.
The event marked a significant increase in views from its premier event in 2018 and 2019, the eMLS Cup tournament, according to MLS’s vice president of properties James Ruth, who oversees eMLS for the league.
Now its third season of eMLS, Ruth sees good omens for 2020 as the 25-team league – played in conjunction with EA Sports’ FIFA video game – preps for its League Series Two event on Feb. 15 in Portland, Ore.
“That’s going to be another great moment for us to celebrate the cross-section of gaming and soccer culture,” Ruth said. “Portland’s got one of the most fervent fan bases in MLS, and I think that fan base is going to come to bear for League Series Two and create a unique environment.”
When eMLS debuted in 2018, it only held a handful of competitive events, Ruth said. Its inaugural season was highlighted by its first-ever eMLS Cup, which featured 19 FIFA players and occurred at popular gaming festival PAX EAST in Boston. eMLS Cup is the property’s premier event.
The eMLS’s sophomore campaign saw it continue to build out its competitive landscape, Ruth said. That was key for it to be in a position to grow the eMLS fan base alongside MLS’s and give them a wider breadth of competition, Ruth said.
To do so, eMLS added its League Series circuit, which now features two events that precede the eMLS Cup.
“Whether it’s reframing the rule set or a schedule, one of the advantages of esports is the ability to move quickly or to make shifts,” Ruth said. “But for us, we also think it’s something that has to be done sparingly because at the end of the day, we’re trying to build a fan base, and one of the biggest components to building a fan base is just consistency.”
Still weeks away from eMLS Cup 2020, the league was able to leverage esports’ popularity with other professional athletes to attract viewers. Ahead of League Series One, former Philadelphia Eagles running back and Super Bowl champion Jay Ajayi signed a professional contract with the Philadelphia Union’s eMLS team. The deal made the London-born star the first NFL player to become a professional gamer.
“It was an eye-opener for sure,” Ajayi said. “It was my introduction into the gaming world. I’d never seen anything or been to an event before, so that was something interesting that I had to go through.”
“There were definitely a lot of people there,” Ajayi added. “I wish I would’ve put on a better showing, but all in all, it was a really cool experience and a good introduction into the world of esports.”
While the esports industry continues to grow, the expansion of competitive sports games within that ecosystem has been slow in comparison.
“The esports that are popular are League of Legends, Overwatch, Dota 2, Fortnite, Counter-Strike:Go, and Call of Duty,” Ryan Morrison, a founding partner of LA-based law firm Morrison Rothman LLP, said. “I don’t think that there are very many people making a living playing Madden or FIFA right now, outside of a few popular streamers.”
Part of that has been the result of smaller prize pools compared to some of those A-list esports titles.
For example, in eMLS’s second season, roughly $73,500 in prize money was distributed, and Gordon Thornsberry – otherwise known as FiddleGT – received a $7,500 cash prize as the winner of League Series One.
The International 2019 – an annual Dota 2 world championship esports tournament – doled out $34.3 million in prize money. That represents the largest prize pool of any esports competition in history.
Those significant prizes not only help draw viewers, but also draws gamers to play the game. The International 2019 had an average peak viewership of nearly two million viewers. The 2019 Fortnite World Cup – a three-day spectacle at Arthur Ashe Stadium – drew more than 2.3 million viewers across YouTube and Twitch during the solo videos, and had a prize pool of $30.4 million.
Following League Series Two, the eMLS season will head to Austin, Tx., for the eMLS Cup 2020, which will take place at SXSW.
Ruth and MLS still see an opportunity reach a broader audience, one that it hopes it not only includes gamers but fans of soccer and pop culture as well.
“We’re very focused on how we continue to create experiences for the gaming community that are unique to MLS,” Ruth said. “We thought that South by [Southwest] was an opportunity in 2020 for us to reach even further. It gives us a lot more breadth and opportunity to reach beyond just the core gaming fan base and trend further into that cross-section of soccer, pop culture, gaming.”