Making Brands Matter: The future of esports in Ireland is now

By Ben Mulholland, Account Executive, Sports Marketing & Sponsorship

“It’s good for me because I’m trying to be the best at something. Trying to be the best is not easy, it comes with a lot of heartbreak. IT’S THE JOURNEY, and everyone has to go through it. It’s not always going to be happy, and there are bad times, but you play for the good times.”- Eric Finn, one of Ireland’s top ranked FIFA Gamers

Esports is a billion-dollar industry, with over $450million in sponsorship rights, coupled with $250million in broadcast rights pumped in to the world of competitive gaming in 2019 alone. In the same year, just under half a billion claimed to have tuned in to watch competitive gaming with average time coming in at 100 minutes, the equivalent of your average Premier League Game. In the US, the League of Legends Competition is the third most popular competitive sports league amongst 18 – 34 year olds coming in after the NBA and NFL but ahead of Major Baseball League and the NHL for example.

All of this was before Covid-19 wiped out live sport leaving its millions of followers here in Ireland and across much of the globe looking for alternatives to fill this void in our lives. Only this week, Munster Rugby followed in the wake of many commercial US and UK sports clubs in signing a partnership that will see Ireland’s top League of Legends team compete in the Northern League Championship as Munster Rugby Gaming.

Irish Sailing has launched the first Irish e-sailing National Championship. Cycling Ireland too has also responded to the current situation by launching a 12 week virtual league that saw more than 1,000 participants in its first week. There is no doubt that one of the outcomes of the Covid-19 impact on Irish life will be the acceleration in growth and following for esports in this market, with fans and brands sure to follow.

Samsung, McDonalds, Coca-Cola and Red Bull are just some of the brands who have already moved in to the esports space internationally. Indeed, the Ireland leg of Red Bull’s Solo Q, esports competition also based around League of Legends, went live this week with a place at the global final in Sao Paolo up for grabs.

Intel is spending over $10 million a year for the sponsorship rights of the Overwatch League alone, while Nike is spending $8 million annually to supply kit for teams competing in the League of Legends Pro League. On the other side of the matrix, ABC, Twitch, YouTube and ESPN have been fighting it out for the streaming rights of the biggest tournaments in the sport. At this point, you too might be starting to take notice, and wondering – what’s it all about?

Esports is a form of sport competition through video games. It can be played virtually online or as live events with significant attendance, such as in 2016, when Madison Square Garden sold out for the League of Legends World Championship. Officially classed as the fastest growing sports segment in the world, the three most popular games that competitions are built around are League of Legends, Doha and Counterstrike. More common games, ones you might quite often see in your own living room, such as FIFA and Fortnite, are also very popular.  

Like all sports, esports has its own superstars and galacticos. Tyler Blevins, a professional gamer in the United States, has over 14.9million followers on Instagram, while UK Fortnite gamer, Kyle Jackson, boasts over 3million. While their social media figures are quite impressive, their winnings are nothing to be sniffed at either with Danish gamer Johan Sundstein accumulating a total of $6.89million so far in his career.

The prizemoney is lucrative and continues to grow with the industry, with a whopping $100million on offer at the 2019 Fortnite World Cup. That’s more prizemoney than the Tour De France, Wimbledon, the Indy500 and the World Snooker Championships – combined. It is no surprise that the competition is intense with many of the world’s top players having backroom teams, strength and conditioning programmes and nutrition to rival top tennis and golf professionals.

Ciaran Walsh, owner of Phelan Gaming, now known as Munster Rugby Gaming, provides an insight in to life in the esports industry. “Our gamers start training at 11, and the morning consists of sessions with a physical trainer, or our sports psychologist. We then move on to video analysis, and assess where we can improve. We have two practice sessions or ‘scrims’, between 2-5PM, and then 6-9PM.” With such detailed preparation, Walsh is hoping for a promising debut season in the Northern League Championship. “Munster Rugby has a rich history, traditionally successful in European competitions and closer to home. We hope to do just the same.”

Walsh predicts that the partnership he has struck with Munster Rugby will be the start of many, as brands across Ireland look to leverage esports to connect with a fanbase that is largely made up of that valuable 18-24 year old audience. 65% of the viewership falls within that age cohort, which is male dominated at 62%. “A large portion of our games last year got more views than most League of Ireland games”, claims Walsh, and with this latest development those figures can only be expected to grow. So, in Ireland, have we missed the boat, or is it yet to set sail? All of the signs point to the latter.

The professional gaming scene in Ireland remains raw. Last week saw the establishment of Ireland esports, the country’s newest national governing body. Described by many as a sleeping giant, only a handful of Irish gamers have established a foothold in the industry. One such player is Josh Juliano. Gaming under the username lolb0om, the Dubliner took home a kitty of $50,000 after coming a commendable 45th place in the 2019 Fortnite World Cup. Not bad for a 17-year old.

Another experienced gamer on the Irish esports scene is Eric Finn, #3 ranked FIFA gamer in the country. A brief chat with the 23-year old Dubliner reveals quite a lot. Eric himself has travelled to both the UK and Romania to compete in international FIFA tournaments, with each competition offering a sizeable purse of €250,000, with €50,000 ultimately going to the winner.

A witness to the intensity and passion of the competition, Eric has seen controllers, keyboards and monitors smashed in outrage and emotion. Esports players, or athletes as many refer to themselves, put in incredible levels of work, comparable to professional sportspeople in any craft. “When FIFA 20 came out in September, I took two weeks off work. I played for twelve hours a day, cooked for two, did an hour of exercise, and walked my dog. 7 hours of sleep.”

To players like Eric, or XampL_Xx as he is known, esports is just as much a sport as the football he would watch on television. When probed on the topic, the Dubliner puts it simply. “What is anyone, in any sport, trying to achieve? To dedicate themselves, to do whatever they can for their team, to be the best that they can possibly be. It’s no different for me.”

Finn feels however that the esports scene in Ireland remains “stuck in the mud” without the backing of an established association and a premium brand. Indications are however that the acceleration in development likely to emerge from our current way of living will be welcome reward for the work and dedication for Ireland’s esports pioneers.

Guided by Irish esports expert Trevor Keane, there are an exciting cohort of young stars in Ireland, Eric included. When questioned on the future of esports, Finn predicts the current situation in this country will only fuel the rise of the competitive gaming industry. “In a couple of years, you look at Gillette Soccer Saturday – there’ll be an esports channel. It is going to explode in Ireland. In other parts of the world, it already has.”

Live sport, as has been proven by its absence, will be as important and celebrated more than ever on its return. Sport will play a significant role in Ireland’s recovery from the Covid-19 emergency. The widespread transition of many aspects of our daily lives to the virtual world, as opposed to the physical world, is likely to enable esports to play a larger role as a form of leisure and entertainment, a reward for what it has been able to do in the absence of much missed live sport. There are also significant opportunities to come when the two worlds combine.

Over the last number of weeks, esports has supported Covid-19 efforts across Europe. Last month, professional footballers from La Liga teams in Spain took each other on virtually through FIFA, with Real Madrid’s Marcos Asensio emerging top of the pile in a tournament that raised over €150,000 for charities in the country.

Formula One too has looked to fill the vacuum of cancelled Grands Prix bringing the Bahrain Gran Prix to life through esports with “real” drivers, Max Verstappen and Nico Hulkenberg, taking part alongside fans and gamers. Such was the success that organisers are struggling to work out logistics for the next edition with unprecedented interest from actual drivers to take part, more than 30 at the last count!

Meanwhile stateside, US broadcaster ESPN, turned April 5th into a first ever “Esports Day” as they broadcasted 12 consecutive hours of competitive gaming, from Rocket League and Apex, to NBA stars such as Kevin Durant competing at NBA2K20. Competition between broadcasters will be fierce, with upcoming esports events expected to fill the significant hole in broadcast schedules given the current context.

There is no doubt that for brands looking to connect in a meaningful way with the 18-24 age bracket, that there is significant potential in esports. This potential has been recognised in pockets across the world with brands, broadcasters and athletes reaping the rewards of involvement in the competitive gaming scene. We believe it is only a matter of time before the same happens here.