Bridging the gap between sports and esports; a football case study

raditional sports have been part of countries’ popular culture for centuries. Sports are universal and an effective communication tool to promote values such as pushing oneself to the limit, and togetherness. It also aims to strengthen international relations and bridge country borders by organizing worldwide events. On top of that, sports are an integral part of the entertainment landscape in most countries, assembling grand viewership around key events. The sports industry is mature and has an equally mature audience. In the UAE, sports are part of the government’s Vision to “achieve a cohesive society and preserved identity”. As a result, the country hosts major sports championships for tennis, rugby, Formula 1, and many others. 

Being still a quite recent phenomenon, esports cannot boast of having the same heritage. However, the growth rate of esports worldwide is catching up with sports quickly, and soon, esports could be as big as sports. Esports viewership is rivaling traditional sporting events: massive international events such as the Free Fire World Series 2021 in Singapore or the 2021 League of Legends World Championship have recorded 5.41 million and 4.01 million concurrent viewers (excluding China’s viewership!). Throughout 2021, esports audiences grew to 728.8 million viewers, which is expected to reach 800 million by the end of 2023.

Esports’ popularity relies on the innovative use of digital tools to engage its young and tech-savvy international community like never before. The esports industry is constantly renewing itself, innovating, and offering its fandom a unique possibility to interact with its superstars. In no time, it has built a robust and vast online community gravitating around professional players, content creators, and streamers. 

Countries such as KSA and the UAE are leading this transformation in the Middle East. It is important to note that both countries’ populations rank among the most engaged online. Foreseeing the immense potential of esports, governments are investing in building esports capabilities and organizing major regional gaming events, such as the Middle East Games Con in the UAE, the Insomnia Festival in Egypt, and the Gamers8 festival currently ongoing in KSA.

There are undoubtedly some lessons that traditional sports could draw from esports, as it is a young, global, digital, and diverse industry. First and foremost, esports’ growth primarily relied on its inclusivity. Anyone with an internet connection can watch esports or play games, regardless of gender, culture, or physical capabilities. One can watch esports tournaments on free-to-use and accessible platforms like Twitch or YouTube. Secondly, esports is, by nature, international as gamers are used to playing on cross-countries servers. Esports teams cherry-pick the best players from each country, and game competitions are organized worldwide. Even though the sports and esports industries differ in many ways, these differences are increasingly bridged by the younger generation, for which sports and esports are part of their daily entertainment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshuffled the cards. As the lockdown hindered any possibility of sports competition, esports has gained momentum. The consumption of esports content on streaming platforms has skyrocketed. With all these new eyeballs on gaming, it was not long before investors and companies started looking at esports as a high-potential industry. It also made the sports industry realize the need to renew itself, integrate new business models, and, more importantly, start a digital transformation. The high viewership of esports tournaments has been a wake-up call for sports clubs to evolve digitally and adapt to the younger audience’s time and tastes. Pioneering this trend was Formula 1, which launched esports races during the Grand Prix Dates, where gamers could qualify and compete against real F1 pilots.

Now the machine is in motion, with an increasing number of collaborations between sports and esports. As the lines between sports and esports become blurrier, football clubs and personalities lead the trend.

Many football personalities have already invested in esports. It is the case of Antoine Griezmann, for instance, who launched his esports team, Grizi Esports. One of the best football players in the world, Ronaldinho, has created an esports team called R10. Ex-Manchester City player Aguero is very involved in the esports scene; he regularly plays games on stream and is also the CEO of KRU Esports.  EA Games FIFA esports influencers are, similarly, also broadening their horizons and getting into football. Football content creator Ali Abu Srwal, has a general channel with almost 3 million followers and a dedicated gaming channel with close to 2 million followers.

Events are also adapting and evolving. During the Gamers Without Borders festival in KSA last year, Ronaldinho and Sergio Ramos played a live game of FIFA, recreating the Classico Barcelona vs Real Madrid. Earlier this year, football’s governing body, FIFA, held the Champions Cup in Qatar, an esports football competition with the participation of sixteen of the world’s best player. It boasted high viewership and ended up with Saudi Arabia’s professional FIFA Player and World Champion Msdossary crowning the winners. To top this off, esports could be part of the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, France. 


                              FIFA Game between Sergio Ramos and Ronaldinho, Gamers Without Border Festival, KSA

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is around the corner. FIFA President Gianni Infantino predicts that 5 billion people will watch this event, the highest viewership in history. He also expects that most people will watch the games from their homes and use social media to engage and be part of the event, a not-to-be-missed brand opportunity.

The World Cup represents a historical milestone for the region, as it is the first-ever one in the Arab World. The MENA region is, again, the most digitally active and engaged globally. Moreover, a substantial Saudi football fandom (73% of Twitter users in KSA are football fans) and a colossal esports fandom represent an opportunity to use both industries to innovate in a saturated space.

Brands must gear up and stay ready to activate the event and stand out. For example, in 2018, although the World Cup welcomed 3 million in-person spectators, Google recorded 3 billion searches linked to the event, and YouTube recorded 5 billion views. Today, the search interest around the Cup surpasses 2018’s world cup by 80%.

A massive amount of digital content will be produced around the event. Interestingly, the content that football fans like to watch online is no different than the esports content fans want to watch: game highlights, creator content, archive content, UGC,… In addition, fans use social media to follow the official account of players and check news and matches analysis, but also to react to an ongoing match or check other people’s reactions. Lastly, Nielsen’s world football report shows that 60% of football fans are likely to play online games while watching the competition.

The real challenge for brands will be getting in front of those fans. Only a few will successfully navigate and stay ahead in the sea of football content and advertising produced during the event. So, what if you dared to do things differently this time? What if you used both industries’ synergies to appeal to millions of fans who love football and gaming.