With only 17 home games in the regular season, the Philadelphia Union have limited opportunities to engage with fans. So, how does the still-young Major League Soccer franchise go beyond the diehards in the stadium and the Union faithful watching on television to reach people who have never even heard of Talen Energy Stadium?
Video games, of course.
MLS started its own esports league in 2018, partnering with video game publisher EA to build an MLS-centric version of the wildly popular EA Sports FIFA series. Dubbed eMLS, the league takes the structure of the FIFA video game and adds in MLS teams, complete with player stats and league standings. That means gamers can choose to play as the Union, introducing the team to a young and highly engaged audience in the rapidly expanding world of esports.
“MLS and all of our clubs want to be wherever our sport is being talked about, being played and anywhere soccer is coming to life,” said James Ruth, MLS vice president of properties. “And that means in the traditional pitch, but in the digital pitch as well.”
Interest in esports is growing rapidly, and investors are pouring billions into the space globally. The industry is projected to bring in $1.8 billion in revenue by 2022, primarily from sponsorships, branding and media rights investments, according to a 2019 industry report from market insights company NewZoo. In Philadelphia, Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) sports and entertainment arm Comcast Spectacor is sinking $50 million into building an esports arena for its Overwatch League team, the Philadelphia Fusion, which will soon play live matches at The Met while waiting for its permanent home to be finished.