The sport of golf is crowded with competition and regulation. Each of professional golf’s four major championships is run by a different governing body, and the biggest pro tours – including the PGA Tour and European Tour, sit atop a field that includes the Asian Tour, the PGA Tour of Australasia, the Sunshine Tour, and others.
On January 17, another tour joined the ranks- and will have no trouble distinguishing itself in the crowd. The European Tour, in partnership with DreamHack and Topgolf, launched its inaugural season-long eTour at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
The debut event saw eight players compete onsite at Abu Dhabi Golf Club for a total prize pool of $10,000 in the online and mobile golf game, World Golf Tour (WGT) by Topgolf. WGT is currently played by 25 million people worldwide, with all the action on screen in any number of virtual courses.
“It’s a huge market,” said Rufus Hack, the European Tour’s Chief Content Officer. “We see it as a great brand extension for the European Tour to be operating in one of the fastest-growing sectors in the media industry. We see it as a great way for us to engage with a more diverse audience with different demographics. And it’s obviously great to add to our portfolio of diverse properties to help our company’s strap line of driving golf further.”
For Topgolf, it’s the sport entertainment company’s latest partnership with a pro sports property. In 2018, it partnered with the USGA to release the first Virtual U.S. Amateur on the WGT game. It bore similarities to WGT’s Virtual U.S. Open, which had been running as an esports competition for more than a decade with more than 4.7 million participants. In 2018 alone, 3.5 million rounds of the Virtual U.S. Open were played, according to the USGA.
Although both the European Tour and USGA have different goals and objectives, their shared interest in esports speaks volumes about their progressive thinking, Topgolf Media President YuChiang Cheng said.
“In the last couple years, the European Tour has been very experimental,” Cheng said. “It’s throwing different types of tournaments that are sort of nontraditional and they view [esports] as part of that venture too: how do they change the game to be more receptive and more relevant to the modern audience?”
“Their entrepreneurial spirit fits Topgolf’s entrepreneurial spirit, and we’ve found that we align on a lot of the same goals in terms of not doing things traditionally for the betterment of the game overall,” added Cheng.
Once the single-day competition was completed, a winner emerged from the crowded field: Golfx3, also known as New Mexico native Payton Gordley. A computer science student who also boasts a four handicap, the 21-year-old defeated fellow American Joshua Smith to take the trophy and a $5,000 winner’s check in Abu Dhabi.
In order to qualify, Gordley entered a four-day online qualification tournament in December that featured more than 45,000 entries from 169 countries. More than 211,000 rounds of golf on WGT were played during that time.
This was followed by a final qualifier where the remaining 128 players competed at Merion Golf Club and Chambers Bay Golf Club for the final eight spots to have the chance to be flown to Abu Dhabi for the live event. The final eight players were globally diverse, with four from the United States and one each from the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and Romania.
The competition in Abu Dhabi is the first of five events that will coincide with the European Tour over the course of its season. The five tournament winners, along with three wildcard qualifiers, will face off at the European Tour’s season-ending DP World Tour Championship at Jumeirah Golf Estates in Dubai on November 19 to 22, 2020 where they will compete for a total prize pool of $50,000.
“This really helps open up new ways to engage with golf fans,” Hack said. “I mean the vast majority of the people who went to the European Tour’s first eTour event were within the 18-to- 34 age demographic. Typically our viewers on our broadcast product are over the age of 50.”
“It just shows this is really additive to what we normally do. And it enables people who have an interest in golf, but maybe consume media in a different way to engage with the sport and also with the European Tour,” Hack added.
While people around the sports industry are aware of the European eTour, it has a long way to go in terms of developing brand recognition, said Ryan Morrison, a founding partner of LA-based law firm Morrison Rothman LLP, which represents players and publishers in the esports industry.
“It’s a different area of entertainment,” Morrison said. “I’m sure there’s an audience for it and there’s people that will enjoy it. I think they can make a fun event and a fun product, but I think if a goal is to compete with League of Legends, they should find other goals there.”
League of Legends, the flagship title from Riot Games, featured a prize pool of $9.15 million for its 2019 competition – good for 9th place on a list led by Fornite with $64.4 million, according to Esports Earnings.
Fortnite game developer Epic Games said in August that the Fortnite World Cup Finals peaked at 2.3 million viewers across YouTube and Twitch. As of January 21, the European eTour’s first event – which streamed for 8:50:10 seconds – has drawn only 63,000 views and featured a top prize of $5,000.
As the European eTour gets deeper into 2020, Hack hopes that its events continue to grow and scale. With not much marketing money devoted to the inaugural event, he thinks that with more tournaments to come, additional promoting can help the eTour become an interesting, genuine sporting competition.
“When we think about bringing people into golf, we think about the awareness and moving them on to engagements and then in terms of playing and participating in golf,” Hack said. “We haven’t had many ways of driving awareness historically amongst this [younger] demographic, and the European eTour was a great way to do that: to get people engaged with golf, participate in the sport in a particular way. Hopefully, there is some symbiotic relationship between [esports] and the main game.”