This article first appeared in issue 10 of Nutmeg Magazine. If you don’t have one already then I would highly recommend you pick up a subscription to the Scottish Football Periodical.

eSports will be a near $1billion industry soon, and football has to move with the times when there’s a chance of earning more off the pitch than on it.

In Nutmeg 9, Gordon Sheach told us all we need to know about the current state of play in the marketing of Scottish football, while Craig Shields took us through Konami’s decision to sign the Scottish Premiership clubs for the latest edition of Pro Evolution Soccer (PES). However, eSports, the next big thing in the football world, is still in its infancy luckily for Scottish clubs.

Forbes reported that revenues from the eSports industry could reach as much as $900m in 2018, up from $655m in 2017. Interest is growing all the time and those revenues, around 40% of which are from sponsorships right now, are expected to grow it to a near $1billion industry in 2019.

However, sports games, and football ones in particular, aren’t the most popular when it comes to eSports. The 2017 League of Legends World Championship, a fast-paced multi-player battle game, was watched by 60 million people with the Samsung Galaxy gaming team taking home the $1.5million prize pot. The final of the 2018 edition was held in the 50,256 capacity Munhak Stadium in Incheon, South Korea.

How did the majority of those 60 million viewers watch last year’s final? On Twitch, which was bought by Amazon for $970million in 2014. It’s the platform of choice when live-streaming eSports to potential viewers, with over 15 million daily active users spending over 350 billion minutes watching others play games in 2017 alone. Media rights contributes around 18% of the eSports revenue pie at the moment but is the fastest growing stream. More and more competitions and companies are signing exclusive deals with the likes of Twitch.

In football gaming, the 2018 FIFA eWorld Cup gained 29 million views across digital and national broadcast platforms for the three-day tournament. Msdossary from Saudi Arabia took home $250,000 for winning and was handed his trophy by David Villa in front of a capacity crowd at the O2 Arena in London.

It’s growing, but the prize money and exposure for non-sport eSports games still dwarfs that of sports games like FIFA. There’s still plenty of room for growth, considering the global appeal of the beautiful game.

During the 2017/18 season, La Liga announced their arrival on the eSports stage with backing from global fast food giants McDonald’s. The McDonald’s Virtual La Liga acted as a feeder tournament for the aforementioned eWorld Cup. With other sponsors involved such as El Corte Ingles, Allianz and Hyundai, it wasn’t long before other leagues decided they couldn’t ignore the opportunity any further.

The English Premier League announced its arrival into eSports in October 2018 with the ePL. Managing Director, Richard Masters, said at the launch: “We know that millions of fans play FIFA, and this new eSports competition will provide clubs with an exciting opportunity to engage with them.” Each of the 20 Premier League clubs will host a live play-off round before the ePL final, which is to be broadcast live on Sky Sports.

Can you imagine Neil Doncaster announcing the first signing for the eScottish Premiership? That’s what NBA commissioner Adam Silver did in April 2018 when he announced the first draft pick for the inaugural season of the NBA 2K League taking place between May and August. Each of the 17 teams taking part then proceeded to build their six-player squads, drafting eSports players in who signed six- month $32,000 contracts with their team. These players can supplement their contracts with extra endorsement deals too, if they wish to.

With all matches live-streamed on Twitch as part of an exclusive multi-year partnership, every player on the court during the matches is controlled by the eSports players in each of the teams, and there’s a $1million prize pot on offer split across the league and three more arcade-style games they’ll take part in. The NBA has bought into eSports and run with it in style.

It hasn’t just been the world football governing body or individual leagues getting involved – plenty of football clubs have too over the past few years. Bundesliga side Wolfsburg became the first professional club to officially sign an eSports gamer in January 2016 and since then clubs across Europe and the rest of the world have followed suit, including Manchester City, PSG and Santos.

One of those clubs is much closer to home than you might think. BSC Glasgow play in the GeoSonic Lowland League and Michael Park, Communications Manager at the club, explained why they followed suit by signing up an eSports player, Derek Robertson. “We know that eSports are a growth area and it’s far from being that we want to start an eSports squad or anything like that but we do want to engage with people who enjoy games and enjoy talking about them.

“Our club is still young and it’s no secret that we don’t attract massive crowds so part of the benefit for us has been getting the name of BSC Glasgow – and to an extent the Lowland League itself – out to more people who may otherwise not have known or not have been interested in football at this level.”

Robertson, or as he goes by on Twitter and Twitch, MozzaPlays, is an avid gamer and big advocate of Scottish lower league football. Park explains why the partnership fits: “Having him run a BSC save [on Football Manager] and become a partner of the club was a no-brainer given his enthusiasm for the league and I like to think that he’s developed into a true fan of the club and we love having him around on match days.

“When you watch one of Mozza’s streams [on Twitch] he’s talking about the club and he’s encouraging people to look into the league which ties into the work that all of the clubs are doing together to boost the profile of the division.”

For the last few years, Mozza has been editing the game database to activate the lower leagues of Scottish football onFootball Manager. What has the progression from gaming enthusiast to eSports partner been like for him? “It’s been really enjoyable,” he says. “I saw a chance to get involved with a local club that I already had an affinity for and jumped at the opportunity!

“Working with the club has led to meeting all sorts of people from around the Lowland League itself, and while I’m now playing Football Manager for a specific purpose my enthusiasm for the game hasn’t been affected.”

From his efforts of trying to get BSC promoted from the Lowland League in the game, Mozza is now seen as a shining example that other eManagers want to emulate and he’s regularly asked for his tips on how others could follow suit. The exposure the partnership has given him has caught him off guard – “I’ve been surprised just how many people have followed along” but it’s also led him to be approached for other projects, one of those being the Lowland League catch-up podcast. It looks as though it’s been a win for both sides of the partnership.

Alongside BSC, a number of other Scottish clubs have dipped their toes in the eSports water to date. In late 2016, Hibs signed up Graham ‘GrayzaGoal’ McIntyre to play in the inaugural Celtic eSports League alongside Hamilton and the likes of Wolves and Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers and Linfield.

Hibs’ head of marketing and commercial operations at the time, Greig Mailer, said eSports was “a market with a lot of potential” and that it could “open up a new way to promote the club.” Mailer also remarked that it might give the club the opportunity to connect with younger fans who don’t necessarily go to Easter Road or watch on TV. McIntyre went on to sign for in a move which saw them aim to ramp up their eSports and FIFA content offering on their website, while Hibs snapped up Hamilton’s player from the same tournament, Jack Beasley. It doesn’t look like it will be long before there’s an eSports transfer window at this rate.

Celtic received almost 1,000 entrants into a FIFA18 eSports competition where the winner received a Celtic shirt, scarf and tickets to a Champions League group stage match last season. The Scottish champions also aimed to win the first ever eFootball.Pro Invitational, played on Konami’s PES, this season against Schalke and Santos.

Celtic’s move to partner with Bundled, a specialist eSports company who supplied the Glasgow giants with two PES players for the competition, highlighted that they weren’t quite ready to fully commit and sign up their own talent to represent the club. That turned out to be quite right at the time but not for much longer because as of early October, the club announced they were to be one of the founder clubs of the eFootball.Pro League. Gerard Piqué is founder and president of eFootball.Pro, throwing more behind the theory that eSports is something people want to get involved in.

Celtic will be recruiting two professional eSports players to represent the club and Gordon Kaye, head of business development at the club, remarked in the piece announcing the move that it was “an exciting step into the evolving world of eSports”.

If clubs can get the move into eSports right then they can reap the benefits. Both Park and Mailer pointed out it could be a way to interact with new fans, but it could also increase the opportunities on the commercial side. One we in Scotland could learn from in this respect is FC Copenhagen. Like many others, they identified the opportunities that eSports could bring, but they approached it differently.

It would have been easy to create their eSports team and call it FC Copenhagen, but in partnership with media company Nordisk Film, North was created. It also would have been easy for North to begin by playing FIFA or PES, but the initial game chosen was Counter Strike: Global Offensive, a first-person shooter and one of the most popular eSports games. This has opened up avenues of sponsorship with the likes of adidas and SteelSeries, who manufacture gaming equipment.

North’s head of communications, Christian Slot, explains the strategy. “It was important for the brand that it was something unique. If we called it Copenhagen eSports, we would be limit- ing the brand to the greater Copenhagen area.” Naturally some FC Copenhagen fans are sceptical, but they aren’t the primary target for the venture. “We want to be attractive for fans outside of FC Copenhagen,” Slot remarks.

They might be named differently to their footballing counterparts, but North are based out of offices within the Parken Stadium and Slot reveals that North are able to easily tap into FC Copenhagen’s resources if they wish to, from “fitness coaches who can tell us what is good to eat or how to exercise to PR staff who we’re able to discuss various matters with.”

Slot admits that there’s still a lot of work to be done: “The eSports scene is still growing rapidly… to expand the business we need to build on our reach to attract even more partners.”

At a time when reach, brand and player popularity is more important than ever before, clubs could encourage their players to be more active in the eSports space too.

We’ve seen Motherwell and the Scottish national team showcasing players, and in Motherwell’s case the manager and his son taking on each other in videos promoted across their social media channels. It conveys personalities, it shows they’re human and helps them relate to fans.

The days of players frequenting the pub with fans are long gone. Today’s equivalent would be watching a player live-stream FIFA on Twitch, which is exactly what you can do if you follow Tony Watt. The 24-year-old forward’s nomadic career since his goal for Celtic against Barcelona has been well documented but he seems to look settled now he’s back in Scotland with St Johnstone. Could this be down to his regular Twitch streaming to his 2000 followers on the platform?

We’re all aware that football isn’t exactly a 9-5 career, there is significant down-time. Playing games while others watch live enables Watt to continue to build his personal brand, which at times in the past has taken a hit. Could we see him enter an eScottish Premiership playing as St Johnstone in the future?

The national governing body, league and most clubs are likely still considering how to best enter the eSports space and what benefits it could bring. Alongside increased exposure to potential new fans, there’s every possibility, even at the current time, that a Scottish football club could earn more from eSports competitions than they earn in league prize money or bring more money into the game from a Scottish FA or SPFL perspective. If you don’t try, you’ll never know.

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