Has the A-League made a mistake moving into eSports?

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If you’re a fan of the A-League on social media you would have seen promotional material for a new league: the E-League.

No, that’s not the fancy name for a second tier for Australia, or another cup format for grassroots clubs – the FFA have introduced a video gaming competition.

It’s a similar format to the already existing A-League competition where each club plays each other as they gun for positions at the top of table, only the clashes in this league are all played out on EA Sports’ FIFA 18 title.

The first matches were played out last Thursday evening with the games played as aggregate scores across Xbox One and Playstation 4 consoles.

That led to score lines like Western Sydney Wanderers defeating the Newcastle Jets 5-1, with a 1-0 win on the Xbox leg, then a 4-1 trashing on the Playstation match, or the ‘blockbuster’ Wellington Phoenix and Perth Glory battle that saw 11 goals scored – 2-1 and 2-6 for a 4-7 result.

If this has all left you scratching your head, you’re more than likely thinking similar things to many other sports fans around Australia – why does the A-League need an eSports league, and why is it getting so much promotion?

There’s a lot of reasons, including depleted crowd numbers at actual A-League fixtures, and the growing popularity of competitions like the Overwatch League, the DOTA Invitational and the North American LCS.

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What are those, you ask?

They’re a number of eSports leagues and tournaments for video game titles like Overwatch (a shooting game with cartoon-ish characters battling on maps around the world), DOTA 2 (an battle arena game with gritty characters battling on a singular map) and League of Legends (a similar title to DOTA except with a cartoon style like Overwatch).

They may just seem like video games but their end-of-year tournaments and debut leagues combined for 201 million total viewers on the popular twitch.tv streaming website.

Here’s where the problem lies for the new E-League – the FFA has decided they want to keep their eSport leagues tied to football, and that’s more than fine.

However, EA Sports just hosted their biggest ever FIFA event – FUT Champions Cup in Barcelona – and it’s three day run-time garnered 2.2 million views, while the debut round of the FFA’s E-League had 309 ‘total views’, and the E-LeagueAustralia channel now boasts a total of 132,144 unique viewers.

Not exactly a spectacular haul when just DOTA 2’s International end-of-year tournament had 92.6 million.

The other argument that the FFA has put forward in regards to the foundation of the video game league is it will draw in fans of the game that may not have paid attention to the clubs and world of the A-League before, and from that perspective it’s more than fine.

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It’s likely there’s already kids playing FIFA that just learned who Melbourne City or the Newcastle Jets are, and if that’s happened it’s doing its job.

It’s just not going to work as well as the FFA may think, and if it’s going to have a massive impact on crowd numbers, club membership or even just viewing numbers of televised games, then why is it getting so much focus?

This is a massive period of change in the Australia football scene, as NPL teams cry out for a ladder system to help them to continue to climb, states and territories across the country are demanding they be included in the country’s top division – just last week Tasmania said they would only host A-League games from now on if it was a Tasmanian team – and grassroots numbers are being propped up by the Active Kids $100 bonus.

The E-League is a great move, but not in such a tumultuous time, and even then there’s better video game titles to be investing in than EA Sport’s FIFA.

Multiple AFL clubs have already brokered deals with eSports clubs, including Essendon’s acquisition of Abyss Esports, and Adelaide’s partnership with Legacy Esports.

Surely a move into already established eSports competitions is a better direction if the FFA and A-League clubs are serious about being involved in the video game scene as a way to boost their match-day numbers.

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So has the A-League made a mistake moving into eSports? For now, it remains to be seen, but unless there’s a surge of viewers for the inaugural E-League fixtures, and a bump in crowd numbers, it is likely a mistake.

It’s the right move in general, and it shows the powers behind Australia football might have an inkling of what the “kids of today” might be interested in, but it’s been made at the wrong time, on the wrong platforms and perhaps too fast for the impact of the league to really change anything with the A-League itself.

All that being said, if the E-League and competitive FIFA still piques your interest, the next electronic matches will kick off 8pm next Thursday evening, with streams available live and free at twitch.tv/eleagueaustralia.

After all, who are we at The Football Sack to get in the way of people wanting to discover new and exciting things.

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Isaac McIntyre
Isaac McIntyre
Reporter ducking in to The Football Sack to speak all things Aussie football and the A-League whenever they'll let me.

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