The Athens club plans to take part in competitions for League of Legends, Starcraft, Dota2 , CS:GO, FIFA 17 and NBA2K. After asking fans on Facebook for their feedback, Panathinaikos will begin its esports venture with League of Legends.
Panathinaikos President Dimitris Baltakos said:
“Competition in the digital environment and the combination of speed, accuracy, strategic thinking, team spirit, etc. is proving extremely attractive as an option for the general public as entertainment (spectators) and as a career (players). Panathinaikos AO like other top clubs worldwide, in line in the times, always seeks development and progress.”
The announcement makes Panathinaikos the 26th professional sports team to add an esports element to its operations.
The first 25 teams to get involved — courtesy of esports analyst Manny Anekal — are:
The extent of each sports team’s involvement in esports varies significantly. The most natural extension of a traditional sport’s activities would be to adopt the video game which corresponds to their own sport.
While a few teams have taken this route, most have begun their esports ventures with the most popular games, rather than soccer games like FIFA 17 or Madden.
One reason why this approach is easier to adopt is because the sports organizing bodies, such as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) have been slower than their members to set out league-wide esports strategies.
This is changing. In late October 2016, FIFA added a chapter on esports in its strategy publication, “FIFA 2.0: The Vision for the Future – a roadmap for the future of the organisation.”
Nevertheless, the traditional sports are still in what can be called the “crawl” stage of developing an esports strategy.
In an interview with ESPN on December 28, Brent Koning, FIFA commissioner for EA Sports, said:
“We use the terminology ‘crawl, walk, run’ a lot. I think we are formally new to the competitive gaming space. And I think for us, we need to be humble, we need to learn.”
This cautious approach may make a lot of sense, but it risks being overtaken by the experience teams are gaining from their early involvement.
The tipping point for esports and traditional sports is the point where there are so many teams in a league involved in esports that the others have no option but to join in.
At that point the synergy between esports and traditional sports will have begun its journey towards maturity.
There are a number of issues that must be overcome before the tipping point is likely to be reached. Perhaps the most important of these is fears of cannibalizing the existing sports audience.
Clubs do not want their live audience to switch to watching the esports version of their games. The ideal outcome is one where the esports games complement the live games, extending audience time and increasing engagement.
The biggest soccer competition of 2016 was the Euro 2016. The event gave sports betting operators a welcome mid-year revenue boost, and some operators were able to take advantage of the virtual sports option to extend their betting products even further.
SportRadar’s Betradar brand launched a virtual Euro 2016 product that created a shadow competition on which fans could place bets.
Alex Inglot of SportRadar explained how it worked:
“We do a lot of analysis of real leagues – for example Bundesliga and EPL for virtual football league, NBA data for virtual basketball which gives us a distribution curve for virtual team performance that has it’s basis in the real world.
For example, Team A will beat Team B 3 out of 4 times. Same for score distribution, e.g. 20% chance of 2-0, 5% for 4-1, etc.. Put all these together and we have a statistical analysis for any match up of teams. All we then need to do then is draw a random number to select where on the curve the result will come from and play out the video.”
The virtual sports option gives clubs the benefits of greater fan engagement without also cannibalizing live viewer figures.
When a club is knocked out in the early rounds of the real competition, it may still be in contention in the virtual version. Fans get a second chance for their team to win.
Sports teams aren’t looking at esports involvement in isolation. They are placing it in context with the other developments in their business, whether those are the technology of virtual sports, or changes in the ways that fans access information about their clubs and their sporting heroes.
How to integrate esports is a challenging management issue. But it’s one that cannot be ignored no matter how reluctant teams are to get involved at the earliest stage.
In 2017 we should expect the tempo of sports team esports announcements to accelerate further. Growth there will be, even if the exact form and direction remains obscure.