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All you need to know about esports

Dinny Navaratnam, AFL Media  December 22, 2017 11:19 AM

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THE AFL is entering the world of esports, with Adelaide and Essendon at the forefront, but most footy fans are stumped when it comes to understanding what esports is.

AFL.com.au has laid out all the important information.

What is esports?

Esports, or electronic sports, is competitive video gaming. Players compete in a variety of games. It has huge popularity among people aged 14-34, although it's common to see children as young as eight watching and playing themselves. AFL general manager of growth, digital and audience, Darren Birch, explained.

"This is now mainstream for most boys and girls. It's not the domain of the typical 'geek' (Birch used air quotes) any more. Egames are now a legitimate pastime and activity for most young people," Birch said.

"People say to me, 'I don't get it'. Well, most people who come to this country who have never seen AFL don't get it either. It's no different really."

Why does the AFL want to be involved in esports?

Exposure to a new audience. Entering a new market means more fans, more sponsors and more money.

It's a big audience – expected to be 400 million globally next year. If the AFL can then bring more fans to Australian football, great, but it isn't concerned if that doesn't happen.

There is already crossover – 21 per cent of AFL fans watch, play or follow esports. The total Australian market is about 1.5 million.

"If you think about the next generation of sports fans, if you're not considering esports as a competitor or an option to acquire fans, you've probably got your head in the sand a little bit," Birch said.

There are different leagues to compete in. Abyss – Essendon's team – will be involved with the Oceanic Pro League and the Oceanic Challenger League, playing League of Legends. Legacy – Adelaide's team – will also play League of Legends, in the OPL.

Teams in the OPL can progress to the League of Legends World Championship.

"There's great potential for us to take our club brands into an international market," Birch said.

Adelaide and Essendon are far from the only sporting sides around the world to have become involved in esports, with baseball behemoth the New York Yankees and soccer giant Manchester City among the many franchises to do so.

How will Etihad Stadium be involved?

The AFL bought Etihad Stadium last October and it sees the venue eventually becoming a hub for esports. Much of the Australian market is now based in Sydney, where there is faster internet. Visions of the Docklands-based arena selling out huge tournaments are some way into the future but it will nevertheless be used soon.

"As a facility for training, for streaming, for making content, for housing maybe one of our clubs' teams, (it's in) the very, very near future," Birch said.

How much is the AFL investing in esports?

Birch said not a huge amount, in the early stages anyway. Etihad Stadium needs a "small infrastructure investment".

"At the end of the day, it's some computer screens and computers, really, to start with, and then how do you integrate that with some streaming facilities, which is really camera and sound and some editing facilities, etc., which we've already got with AFL Media," Birch said.

Other than that, the AFL's investment will be more through its intellectual property to help set-up the esports scene in Australia.

Which clubs are involved?

Adelaide and Essendon are the first two. The Crows bought Legacy in May. Earlier this month, the Bombers joined with Executive Sports and Entertainment to purchase Abyss, and will relocate the team from Sydney to Melbourne.

Early next year, Abyss will relaunch and will take on Essendon's colours and branding. However, Legacy won't. It seems logical that Legacy should if Adelaide wants exposure on the world stage via its esports team, but Birch had a counterpoint.

"That's up to the clubs, but it's also being cognisant of the teams which they are partnering with or buying into and their fan base. Legacy has a very strong domestic fan base, so it would be like one team in the AFL taking over another team and just completely wiping out their brand," Birch said.

What games will they play?

League of Legends and Overwatch. League of Legends is a real-time strategy game played online, where teams of five try to beat the opposition.

Adelaide and Essendon have decided against Overwatch but future clubs might opt for it. Overwatch, a first-person shooter game, sees teams of six going up against each other.

"Everyone talks about FIFA and NBA 2K, but these other games like League of Legends and Overwatch, they dwarf any sports games, and the fact is that you can't see them anywhere else," Birch said.

Are these athletes?

It might be tough to reconcile that people sitting behind a computer are athletes but they train several hours a day, review game tape, and have coaches, psychologists and dietitians. 

Since 2013, the US State Department has recognised League of Legends as a sport, meaning competitors can enter the country on the same visas as other athletes.

Some of the biggest names make salaries in the seven figures.

Reflexes start to fade when players reach their mid-20s, so physical traits are important.

How will females be involved?

"We'd love to be a pioneer in the esports environment and support girls and women into the esports environment. It is dominated by males, but there's no reason why that should be the case," Birch said.

Having separate women's teams could happen.

"That's an option into the future, depending on who we partner with, depending on which game it is, depending on whether there is an attraction for girls to be playing the game," Birch said.

"Most of these esports are team-orientated, so teamwork, strategy, all those sorts of things, they're gender neutral. It's just a matter of opportunity."