Why do soccer teams keep signing FIFA players?

It seems pointless when FIFA isn’t on the esports map. So why are they doing it?

Photo via FIFA

This year has seen a swathe of traditional sports organizations getting into esports. Whether it’s the Philadelphia 76ers buying Team Dignitas, or Schalke 04 fielding their own LCS team, it has transformed the face of the industry.

But another part of this traditional sports investment has some hardcore esports fans puzzled. A significant number of soccer clubs have also invested in esports?—?but in FIFA players. The popular football sim definitely has a place within the esports ecosystem, but it’s certainly not even close to a top game. Despite this teams across the world, from West Ham United to Olympique Lyonnais to River Plate, have signed FIFA players to compete in tournaments like the FIFA Interactive World Cup (FIWC) under their banner.

FIFA is tough to track as an esport. Unlike most esports games, the game itself is replaced every year. In the last five years the total prizes awarded just about reaches $500,000, a minuscule number compared to the top tier esports titles, and tournaments fail to attract significant viewership. So why are these clubs not going for something more popular, like League of Legends or Counter-Strike?

The answer is complicated, but to put it bluntly: simplicity.

To quote legendary esports broadcaster Paul “ReDeYe” Chaloner, FIFA has a place in esports as a “gateway drug”. With millions of FIFA players worldwide, introducing those players to the competitive scene can be a great way to familiarize them with the concept of esports. They already understand the game, removing one of the significant barriers to casual fans getting engaged in esports?—?particularly with MOBAs.

It can also act as a gateway for the teams themselves. If teams are well received and see some success with an initial investment in FIFA, it can familiarize them with the esports eco system and encourage further development.

Most of these FIFA players are also already soccer fans. If your club signs a FIFA player, it’s not that big of a stretch to think that you could be enticed to check out that player and root for them. These clubs see a natural bridge for their fanbase between soccer, and virtual soccer. From there perhaps they can then take advantage of transferring those fans over to more established esports, or choose to further deepen their investment in FIFA.

Fanbase aside, FIFA is also relatively cheap. Not only is it an individual game, but the fact that the scene is less prominent within esports means there is less competition and lower demands for salaries and compensation. To get into the LCS teams have to come up with around $1 million just to buy a slot, before you even bother trying to sign any players or set up an infrastructure. When you can invest seven figures and then be out of the league in a matter of months, as happened to FC Schalke, it’s easy to see why traditional sports clubs would be hesitant.

Most of these soccer clubs have been around a very long time, and they didn’t get to where they are by blindly making risky investments. Signing FIFA players is a low risk move that can lead to great things for the industry?—?so it’s time for hardcore fans to stop sneering at it.