Pro sports joining eSports bandwagon but faces uphill challenge to score with gamers

Pro sports has a ways to go to capitalize on the eSports boom.

Vancouver Whitecaps among Major League Soccer teams fielding a representative in virtual league

Erfan Hosseini, 17, became a professional FIFA gamer and the face of his hometown Vancouver Whitecaps after playing the video game for less than four years. (Matthew Black / CBC)

Most Grade 12 students work toward graduation still looking to find their careers.

But Burnaby, B.C.'s Erfan Hosseini has already found his future in the virtual gaming arena.

Known online as Skill Shack thanks to his in-game flare, Hosseini is among the latest video game athletes to be recruited and paid by real-life sports teams, in his case, for playing the popular FIFA soccer simulation series.

"It's a dream come true. You don't expect this to happen at any point of your life."

Hosseini, 17, was signed as the Vancouver Whitecaps' first official esports representative last month and will represent the team against 17 other gamers, each representing Major League Soccer teams, at the inaugural eMLS Cup in Boston this weekend.

"I just played this game as a hobby. I didn't expect it to grow into an esport," he said.

 

"Growing up playing games, you don't think that you'll be able to represent your hometown team on the virtual pitch where thousands of people will be watching."

Major League Soccer joins the National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and the National Football League, among other pro sports, looking to cash in on the multi-million dollar business of competitive gaming, which has ballooned in popularity in recent years.  

But while those traditional team sports, backed by multi-billion dollars leagues and owners, are increasingly joining the competitive video game scene, sports games are relative newcomers to the world of esports, and it's unclear if fans of real-life sports spectacles will also be drawn to virtual competitions.

'Hidden demographic' 

One of the issues they face is competition from the real-life sport itself.

"You'd rather watch pro basketball players play in the NBA than people playing representations of them in a video game," said Benton Chan, an esports player and coach who specializes in the online collectible card game Hearthstone.

Fantasy games, like World of Warcraft, League of Legends and Dota2, as well as shooter titles like Overwatch, Counter-Strike and Rainbow Six Siege, dominate the esports industry, drawing millions of online viewers.

Last summer, the League of Legends Spring Championship saw more than 30,000 fans fill Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum over the two-day event. 

"Something like FIFA, you can go outside and play soccer. You can't imitate what you can do in the other games."

Tournaments featuring League of Legends, like this one in Toronto, can draw tens of thousands to fans to NHL hockey-sized arenas. (Jonathan Ore/CBC)

That perception is evident on Twitch, the streaming platform favoured by gamers, where sports titles like FIFA, Madden and NBA 2K, struggle to crack the top-20 most viewed games.

Sports games also lag behind in prize money. The winner of last year's top FIFA tournament received $200,000 US. In comparison, the winning team at last year's biggest League of Legends tournament walked away with more than $1.85 million US in winnings. 

"It's just a different crowd," said Chan of sports gamers.

Scoring with soccer fans

But it's a crowd that could be won over.

FIFA is annually among the top-selling video games, with an estimated 10 million copies sold each year worldwide.

Chu "ChuBoi" Morah is proof that sports-based games can succeed as eSports.

Chu 'ChuBoi' Morah says part of FIFA's appeal is how closely it replicates real-life soccer. 'You see Ronaldo on TV. You see Ronaldo in the game. He runs the same way. He shoots the same way.' (Chu Morah)

As an analyst and commentator, he streams hours of FIFA content that are viewed by his more than 100,000 followers on Twitch and 84,000 YouTube subscribers.

"Having them see people play the game that they play at home, and play it so well, will inspire them to come and watch it."

While a virtual soccer tournament isn't likely to fill any stadium-sized venues right now, he says esports allows pro sports leagues to reach audiences that don't connect with traditional sports.

"A lot of kids in Europe who probably wouldn't watch MLS … they'll find out about Whitecaps FC through Erfan," said Morah.

By normalizing the scene of thousands of fans filling stadiums to watch video games, he says established fantasy esports can complement, rather than compete with, emerging sports video game competitions. 

"They're going to help make things more familiar," he said.

"So they now say, 'hey, there's nothing wrong going to a stadium to watch a video game because we've seen it before.'"

Despite the challenges, Morah says he can see the day when FIFA will attract a similar spectacle. 

"I don't see any reason why you wouldn't get the same amount of people watching an actual Whitecaps match versus watching a FIFA tournament."

FIFA esports tournaments are scheduled across the globe, including this one in Brazil during 2014. (The Associated Press / Silvia Izquierdo)

About the Author

Matthew Black

@TheMatthewBlack

Matthew Black is a B.C.-based writer, producer and reporter. He writes mostly about sports and has worked for CBC in Toronto and Vancouver as well as abroad in London.

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