On 29th March 2019, Liverpool was crowned the winning team of an English football league competition. While they missed out on the Premier League title by a single point to Manchester City that year, gamer Tekkz led them to victory in the first-ever ePremier League. They have since replicated their digital success on the real-world pitch, dominating the 2019/20 season.
The esports league was played using retail versions of the EA Sports game, FIFA 19, for both Xbox One and PlayStation 4. A single player controlled each team, rather than multiple people working together like is seen in other esports competitions like the NBA 2K League.
The competition returned in 2020 using the game format, with games being broadcast on the Twitch streaming platform.
Huge Esports Market
Esports has become a massive industry, generating more than $1 billion in revenue during 2019. Somewhere between 500 million and 1 billion people regularly watch games on the internet, making esports as popular as many other international sports, albeit more fragmented than some.
As well as football, esports competitions exist for a wide range of different games, including popular shooting games Fortnite and Call of Duty, card games from PokerStars and RPG games like League of Legends.
These other types of games have been more successful in growing a fan base, attracting sponsors and getting coverage of their events. For example, the 2019 ePremier League reached a peak of 83,421 viewers for the semi-final game between Jas1875 and KyleLeese_.
In comparison, The International 2019, one of the biggest esports events in the world, had peak viewing figures of more than 1.1 million during the grand final of the Dota 2 event. Showing how small the ePremier League’s following is. The 2019 World Championship achieved a peak audience of 3.98 million, while the Fortnite World Cup 2019 Finals managed 2.33 million.
Football a Small Audience
It’s not only the ePremier League that suffers with low viewing figures compared to other esports. The EA Sports FIFA 19 Global Series had 11 million viewing hours, which, although was a 60% increase on the previous year, was still tiny in comparison to other video games.
The most-watched esports game in 2019 was League of Legends with over 470 million hours of gameplay being watched by fans around the world. In fact, FIFA 19’s 11 million hours doesn’t even get it close to the top 5, which saw Arena of Valor take 5th place with 72.2 million hours watched.
Even four of the top five games in the mobile esports games, which is traditionally a smaller market that PC and console games, had more views than FIFA.
This is somewhat surprising since FIFA was the 14th most popular game of 2019, being enjoyed by football fans all over the world. More than 10 million people play the game around the world, in addition to the 260 million copies of the franchise being sold between the first release in 1993 and FIFA 19.
The game’s annual release has also been inspiration for a number of internet memes, depicting wives and girlfriends who’ve been made single after losing their partner to FIFA.
Football itself is immensely popular. During the 2018/19 season, Sky Sports aired 16 separate games that had more than two million viewers, more than the two previous seasons combined.
Yet, despite its popularity, FIFA does not perform well as an esport.
Traditional Sports Don’t Make Good Esports
None of the most popular esports games are licensed titles of traditional sports. The NBA 2K League only achieved an average of 5,266 viewers per game in its second season, a decline of 59.3%.
Games like FIFA have two main problems. They can be directly compared to real-life sports, which will always offer a better show than a video game imitation. For Call of Duty, League of Legends or Dota 2, this isn’t a problem. They’re fictional games mostly based on fantasy.
Secondly, FIFA and other sports games need to replicate the different skill levels of players. This means that, at least to some degree, the same teams that dominate in the real world have a significant advantage in the video game. This, again, isn’t an issue with other video games as they don’t need to reflect real-world people and teams.
Given these inherent limitations, it seems esports will always be a very small part of football and other real-world sports.