Sunday 4 December 2016

Now couch potatoes can represent their nation in soccer

Football's not just a money-spinner for the world's top players, it's also big business for gamers. Michael Cogley meets the co-founder of a competitive new league for punters

Published 13/10/2016 | 02:30

Manchester United superstar Paul Pogba features at Old Trafford in the hit FIFA 17 game for consoles
Manchester United superstar Paul Pogba features at Old Trafford in the hit FIFA 17 game for consoles

Few sports can match the wealth and the reach of football. The sport has moved a long way since being first codified back in 1863.

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Not many would imagine rights to Premier League games would fetch a price as high as £5.1bn (€5.6bn) and even fewer would believe the likes of former Chelsea star Ruud Gullit and Arsenal god Robert Pires would be immortalised in a computer football game.

Soccer is no longer a game, it's an obsession.

That much can be evidenced by the healthy growth of esports, where gamers play video matches against one another. The industry is worth $463m (€416m) and is set to grow to $1.1bn by the end of 2019. Esports is growing at a ferocious rate and Ireland is about to welcome a new gaming league, centred on the massive gaming hit FIFA.

The Celtic eSports League (CEL) will see representatives from Ireland take on others from England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland in a competitive league format that could see the winner take home as much as €15,000.

"The bottom line is the individuals, mainly in the millennials, that are playing these games on a regular basis. We're creating a league format that brings together a couple of teams from the Celtic nations. They will play against each other just like the traditional season would be," Celtic eSports League co-founder Geoff Wilson told the Irish Independent.

The league has been created off the back of growing interest in esports from real life football clubs. More and more clubs are eyeing up the potential of esports and are looking to take advantage.

"What's happening now is teams are starting to select esports players. Wolfsburg in Germany was the first one, Man City, PSG, Valencia, West Ham, all have now signed esports players as if they are a player as part of their squad.

"These clubs get involved because they want to reach out to a new generation. They want to use it not only as a marketing channel but they see esports as having a technical skill. So it's using both the marketing channel and developing the esports skill. These players will represent these clubs in tournaments," Mr Wilson explained.

Once set up the league will see the best players in Ireland compete with other nations on a Monday and a Wednesday in a league format. The league is set to run from November until Christmas before breaking until March.

Players will be selected depending on their level. They don't need to be representing a club but their 'FIFA CV', which could include things like win ratios and esports accolades, will need to be good in order to play in the league.

The CEL is entering a very fragmented market with numerous ad hoc, one-off competitions. Mr Wilson hopes to unify the sector under one umbrella.

What can help it achieve that is the endorsement of top football clubs. While none have been announced yet Mr Wilson said the league is in "advanced" discussions with clubs in the top tier of each country.

However, the league won't be hemmed in by exclusivity. The CEL will have a lower league that will see community players battle it out for a chance to play with the elite of the Celtic nations.

Mr Wilson is hoping to attract players at the upcoming One Zero sport and technology conference.

Unified tournaments have long been something FIFA players have yearned for but numerous efforts have failed in the past. Getting the world's top football clubs on board however could prove to be a game changer.

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