MLB likely to enter esports in 2019

The MLB is the only major sports league in the U.S. without an esports operation.

Screengrab via SIE San Diego Studio

Major League Baseball will be entering the esports space this year, according to commissioner Rob Manfred.

Speaking at SportTechie’s State of the Industry Conference in New York on Thursday, Manfred said that while the MLB’s engagement with esports has been a weak spot for the organization, it plans to rectify that in 2019.

“It is a real priority for us going forward,” Manfred said. “It’s tough to say more than this, but I’m pretty confident, in 2019, we’re going to have a really nice announcement in that space.”

In comparison to America’s other major sports leagues, the MLB does lag far behind in esports. The NBA is preparing for the second season of its NBA 2K League. The NFL sponsors the Madden Club Championship major series. Major League Soccer established the eMLS league last year, and the NHL partnered with FACEIT to operate the 2018 Gaming World Championship in Las Vegas.

Manfred didn’t offer any further specifics, but it’s the most concrete evidence of the MLB commissioner taking esports seriously. In a 2017 interview at the Paley Center, Manfred told a crowd, “we see a lot of opportunity in this space.”

“We think you can learn a lot from the demographics of the people that are engaging in this activity, and, you know, it has carry-over in our business,” Manfred said. (Manfred’s full comments can be viewed starting at 2:04.)

That “carry-over” he’s referring to is the recent trend of team owners from across the sports industry investing in esports, including several Overwatch League teams.

The New York Excelsior is owned by New York Mets COO Jeff Wilpon. The Boston Uprising is owned by the Kraft Group, which itself is owned by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. The Los Angeles Gladiators are owned by Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, the holding company for the Los Angeles Rams, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and several other professional teams.

SportTechie’s conference has featured MLB execs like Jamie Leece discussing esports before. Leece is the vice president of games and virtual reality for the MLB Advanced Media. (MLBAM is the league’s internet and interactive media-focused branch, operating MLB Radio and managing most team websites.)

Leece noted that not only does the MLB want to ensure any esports operation is respectful to the wishes of the fans, but that it can be difficult for the events themselves to be profitable endeavors.

“The products behind [the events] can profit,” Leece said. “The organizations that are around those esports can profit. But the actual contests themselves are still trying to find a way to not be more than the marketing budget.”

The blending of traditional sports with esports is still searching to get some real popularity.

Maximum concurrent viewership (MCV) at the end of the NBA 2K League’s inaugural regular season peaked at 28,000. The MCV for the 2018 Madden Club Championship fell just under 150,000 on Twitch. Sports Business Daily reported the MCV of the NHL’s Gaming World Championship was just over 28,000. All of these stats are mere fractions of the numbers that games like League of Legends and CS:GO produce.

But traditional sport esports are still proving to be a promising endeavor with the NBA2KL expanding, the NFL and EA continuing work on Madden tournaments, and Manfred’s comments on the MLB’s entry into the industry.

Whether the MLB will follow the eMLS and NBA2KL with each professional team operating an esports club, or mirror the Madden Club Series with individuals playing as their team of choice and only gaining backing from the respective pro organization after winning it, is yet to be seen.

Regardless, it will be an innovative step in the MLB’s ongoing challenge to enfranchise younger demographics that have grown uninterested with the sport of baseball.