Schalke and other football clubs have set up their own eSports teams. What's surprising about this is that it goes well beyond soccer simulations like FIFA or Pro Evo. Footie clubs in eSports, can it work?
The more cynical Schalke observer might see a different motivation here than the club's management does - the Royal Blues have found a way to challenge for a title, at last. Sports reporters were called in for a press conference in the western German city of Gelsenkirchen. Just another day at Schalke: prestigious sponsors' names on the walls, various drinks and other product placements adorning the tables. Yet something was different.
Nobody was talking about football, club captain Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was nowhere to be seen. Indeed, stealing the show were Hampus "Sprattel" Abrahamsson and Etienne "Steve" Michels. You haven't heard of them? Well, no time like the present. Or at least that's Schalke's management's opinion, for S04 recently launched its latest outfit, an eSports team. Sprattel and Steve might as well be the Huntelaar and Leon Goretzka of this crew, two stars in Schalke's League of Legends team.
It's the first press conference of its kind in eSports. Schalke is showing courage to take such a step, seeing as league rivals Wolfsburg had so far only dared to dip their toes into the familiar, football-flavored waters of the EA Sports football simulator series "FIFA".
For Moritz Beckers-Schwarz, chairman of the public company Schalke04 Arena Management, the club has a lot to look forward to in its new endeavor: "The eSports world is a global phenomenon. We see synergies to classic sport. The players, their manners fit well with our club."
As well as League of Legends - a multiplayer online battle arena game - the club is considering incorporating others like DOTA 2 (a strategic battle arena game) or FIFA.
eSports debut a longstanding goal
Alongside Schalke, Spanish football club Valencia has chosen to register an eSports team. To kick off, they've enlisted four players for Blizzard Entertainment's 2014 game Hearthstone. The venture is aiming for a profit as yet, explains eSports manager Sergio Benet. The club has signed Haneul "NaRA" Lee, Hector "The Fallen" Fuentes, Diego "Evangelion" Fuentes and Jose Miguel "Josemi" Pascual - gamers who are not so well known on the international stage. Still, they're among Spain's most famous players and were quickly able to celebrate domestic success.
The scene keeps on growing, as does the list of clubs taking part, trying to get a piece of the action. Turkish Istanbul club Besiktas has a League of Legends team just like the Royal Blues, while Manchester United is reportedly interested in the new Blizzard game Overwatch. You could probably say that eSports is leveling up. However, some players see such developments more as a case of game over - at least when it comes to the intimacy and brotherliness that has marked out eSports to date. Whatever you think of the heavy hitters wading into the pool, it could help competitive gaming's bid for recognition as a real sport.
It will be intriguing to see if - and how effectively - these clubs can establish themselves in eSports. FC Schalke 04, at least, won their opening match and are on a pleasing trajectory. The club is hoping to make Gelsenkirchen home for several eSports players, and to make the Veltins Arena the home of the League of Legends league LCS. Even the Knappenschmiede, Schalke's renowned youth academy, wants to set up a team. All that's really missing is a worthy rival to fit the football theme. When will Borussia Dortmund dare to make its eSports debut?