Every sports league is always trying to draw in younger fans, but Major League Soccer might be banking on them more than any other.
In the American and Canadian sports worlds, soccer is still on the outside looking in — people tend to think of the “big four” pro sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) before MLS. But soccer is becoming increasingly popular here, especially with young people. It turns out that there’s a ton of crossover between MLS fans and people who play video games, which the league is now capitalizing on by creating its own esports organization.
Known as eMLS, the esports league grew out of MLS’ existing partnership with Electronic Arts for the publisher’s massively popular FIFA series of soccer video games. It’s a sign of how important gaming is to MLS — which is to say, if it matters to the league’s fans, then it matters to the league.
“It’s really based on the connection with the fan base,” said James Ruth, senior director of properties and events at MLS, in an interview with Polygon last week.
The nature of the MLS audience also proves out the connection between the league and gaming. MLS fans are twice as likely to be gamers as the average sports fan in North America, according to 2017 data from Simmons Research. And in a survey that the league conducted in 2014, it found that about two-thirds of avid MLS fans pointed to EA’s FIFA series as the first thing that got them interested in soccer — a higher proportion than the percentage of respondents who said that playing the sport got them into it.
MLS has had a strong relationship with the FIFA games for years. When MLS replaced its original logo in 2014, the league teamed up with EA Sports and actually debuted the new crest inside FIFA 15. And Ruth told Polygon that a major reason The Journey: Hunter Returns — the career mode in FIFA 18 — took protagonist Alex Hunter to the L.A. Galaxy was that the league worked with EA to make it happen.
“Whether you’re playing in Indonesia or Korea or Denmark, you’ve got some reverence for our clubs now,” said Ruth, referring to the worldwide fan base of the FIFA games and the popularity of The Journey.
Video games are a new way for sports leagues to gauge fan interest, and it makes sense for MLS to focus on it. Traditional metrics like media coverage, broadcast viewership and merchandise revenue are growing, but they don’t necessarily favor MLS when compared to MLB, the NBA, the NFL or the NHL.
Of course, MLS is in a tough position, considering the legacy audience for those leagues; it’s under 25 years old, while the youngest of the other organizations is the NBA, which was founded in the 1940s. Plus, each of the other four leagues represents the highest level of competition in the world for its sport, which simply isn’t the case for MLS. While it is the top level of professional soccer in North America, homegrown talent often eschews MLS for Europe, where the world’s best footballers look to compete in organizations like the Premier League.
At the same time, soccer has never been more popular here than it is now. A Gallup poll based on a December survey of more than 1,000 American adults found that soccer was almost as popular as baseball: 7 percent of the respondents said soccer was their favorite sport, versus 9 percent for the so-called national pastime. Ice hockey didn’t even rate; the only other sports covered in the poll were football and basketball. Most notably, among adults aged 18-34, soccer was tied with basketball for their favorite sport, at 11 percent.
Ruth said that MLS now considers playing video games — for instance, playing with the San Jose Earthquakes in a FIFA game — to be a statement of fandom, just like buying a jersey. And it’s a big part of the reason the league decided to establish an esports organization.
“We’re starting to shift how we think about fandom holistically to say, ‘Hey, gaming’s a major component of that.’ Not only in where they spend their time, but how they express themselves as fans,” said Ruth. “We want to use competitive gaming and eMLS to get the MLS experience to more people. There’s a ton of people — especially in North America — who engage with FIFA, but they’re not necessarily engaging with MLS.”
Building MLS esports
At the outset, 19 of the 23 MLS clubs are participating in eMLS. Asked about the four teams that are sitting it out so far — Real Salt Lake, D.C. United, Atlanta United FC and the brand-new L.A. FC — Ruth said, “It’s not for a lack of wanting to [on their part].” He added, “We didn’t want to push any clubs into doing it. […] I think you’ll see all the clubs eventually come on board.”
A dedicated eMLS team within MLS’ properties unit will run the organization, but the administration is relatively loose; the company is leaving many of the details to the individual clubs. Each team can come up with its own way of choosing a FIFA 18 pro to represent it in eMLS competition, although Ruth said the clubs will generally choose one of three methods: running an open tournament; holding a pro-am tournament, in which the team supplements the field with some elite players; or selecting an established esports star.
A key element of eMLS is building a connection between a particular MLS club’s local fans and the team’s eMLS pro. That’s why — although it isn’t a requirement — it is “strongly recommended from our side that clubs select from their local market,” said Ruth.
This weekend, the Philadelphia Union are holding an open tournament to find two eMLS players. The New York Red Bulls recently hired Mike LaBelle, a prominent FIFA YouTuber who played soccer in college, as their official esports athlete.
The chase for the Cup
In this, the inaugural year of eMLS, the league’s organizers will focus first on the eMLS Cup, a tournament that they will hold in April at PAX East. It will be one of numerous esports competitions that feed into the FIFA 18 Global Series tournament that EA runs. Teams can only submit one pro to play in the eMLS Cup, so clubs like Minnesota United FC — which signed a team of four esports players last month — will have to figure out a way to narrow it down for the tournament.
The event will run for all four days of PAX East. The eMLS Cup will begin with qualifying rounds on the Thursday and Friday of the show, April 5-6, with the field split into two conferences, one with 10 teams and one with nine. The top eight players from each conference will move on to seeded knockout rounds on Saturday, leading to conference championships and the final match on Sunday. The eMLS Cup will have a prize pool, but Ruth said the organizers are still finalizing the details.
Both the winner and the runner-up will secure spots in the FIFA 18 Global Series Playoffs. The champion will get to choose between the PlayStation and Xbox divisions in EA’s tournament, while the second-place finisher will have to play on the other console. All of this is building to the FIFA eWorld Cup in August, which will feature the top 32 competitors from the playoffs vying for FIFA 18’s world championship title.
“That’s why we’re really bullish on the EA infrastructure, because it’s got this local-to-national-to-global connectivity that is really compelling,” said Ruth.
The eMLS rules have some interesting wrinkles designed to spice up the competition. The FIFA Ultimate Team rosters that players put together must feature 11 starters, seven bench players and five reserves. And the clubs’ MLS counterparts will matter in esports competition: During eMLS matches, each team must have at least three MLS players on the pitch at all times, and two of the three must be players from the MLS club they’re representing.
These restrictions are meant to keep the competition from getting stale, and prevent every team from simply sticking with top players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos. They’re also designed to make the eMLS pros feel “closer to their club,” said Ruth, and to foster debates over roster strategy.
Keep it clean, folks
Both MLS and EA are being explicit about expectations for player behavior. Competitive gaming is, naturally, a highly charged environment, in which trash talk sometimes crosses the line into offensive language. And since esports athletes tend to be young people who are accustomed to speaking and acting without a filter, they’re often unprepared for the responsibilities that come with partaking in a professionalized sporting competition.
The Overwatch League just launched last month, and Blizzard Entertainment has already had to deal with multiple incidents of misconduct. In one instance, the league fined and suspended a Dallas Fuel player for using a homophobic insult against another competitor during a match. Last year, EA Sports fined the winner of a high-profile Madden NFL tournament for inappropriate tweets.
Ruth said that all eMLS pros with “qualified relationships with our clubs” will be “held to the same code of conduct standards that our traditional players are.” MLS maintains a Disciplinary Committee with guidelines that regulate on-field behavior, a setup that might not translate exactly to esports. Asked for further details, an MLS spokesperson told Polygon that the league sees its disciplinary principles as “complementary” to EA Sports’ code of conduct for the FIFA 18 Global Series, which governs sportsmanship issues like cheating as well as behavioral concerns such as physical or verbal abuse.
Individual clubs will handle player discipline, although league officials can mete out punishments as well. The spokesperson added that eMLS athletes will be expected to play by the rules at all times, whether within or outside of esports competition. For instance, a player could be subject to discipline if they use racial slurs in a Facebook post or get arrested for drunk driving — they’re representing eMLS and, ultimately, MLS in everything that they do.
It’s a good attitude to start out with. eMLS isn’t an organization on the level of the Overwatch League or NBA 2K League, where being a player is a full-time job with a salary and benefits — “we’re not to that point,” said Ruth — but MLS does have big plans for the future. The organizers are scheduling esports competitions around notable dates in the real-world MLS calendar, such as Rivalry Week and the All-Star Game this summer. Next year, the plan is to hold a six-week, livestreamed regular season leading up to the 2019 eMLS Cup.
“There’s a lot of people out there that are really good FIFA players, but they’re not in the competitive infrastructure yet,” said Ruth. “We want MLS to be a major component of the FIFA community conversation.”
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