We've seen professional football clubs bring top FIFA players into their ranks, to represent them in international eSports events. Only last month, I spoke to David Bytheway, a British FIFA pro who signed a contract in January to "play for" Bundesliga team Vfl Wolfsberg, while West Ham United have just recently done the same with FIFA Interactive World Cup finalist of 2016, Sean Allen.
This seems like a pretty natural development – the club in question is already deeply involved in association football, EA Sports' FIFA series is the most popular virtual version of the game in the world, and two plus two equals a shit load of exposure and, potentially, lovely cash from a whole new market. But what might have escaped your attention is how professional football clubs are looking beyond simulated versions of the so-called beautiful game, and into the MOBA scene.
In May 2016, German club FC Schalke 04 took over the League of Legends team Elements. The chairman of the board at FC Schalke 04 Arena Management, Moritz Beckers-Schwarz, said of the deal: "We have noticed that the level of professionalism in eSports has continued to grow over the past years. Particularly noteworthy is the development of structures within League of Legends and the flagship League of Legends Championship."
Schalke weren't the first company of their kind to buy into LoL – Turkish club Besikats took charge of the LoL team Aces High in January 2015. And nor will they be the last, as Valencia CF, who finished 12th in the 2015-16 La Liga season (the Spanish top flight), have confirmed their intent to get involved in the LoL scene.
According to this report on eSports Observer, Valencia is preparing to get stuck into eSports in a big way. Its LoL team will supposedly be ready to go by the end of 2016, but the club also plans to form a roster capable of taking on tournaments in Rocket League, Hearthstone and (obviously) FIFA.
Picking up on the story, Rift Herald writer James Dator looked into why Valencia in particular is making this move ahead of any other, perhaps more famous La Liga outfits. His colleague Kevin McCauley explains:
"Valencia was once known as one of the best run clubs in the world from a sporting and business perspective. They've been anything but that over the last decade. Maybe (football agent Jorge) Mendes (who is friendly with the club's billionaire owner Peter Lim) is growing tired of soccer and sees eSports as the future."
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Goal.com reports that Valencia already has its Hearthstone team in place, and the quartet – namely Diego 'Evangelion' Fuentes, Hector 'TheFallen' Fuentes, Haneul 'NaRa' Lee and Jose Miguel 'Josemi' Pascual – will compete at Gamergy, Spain's premier eSports event, at the end of June.
It'll be interesting to see if many – if any – more English Premier League clubs follow West Ham's example and establish an eSports presence of their own. Bytheway told me "it won't be too long before we see multiple clubs doing this", adding: "It's going to happen in a flood. In terms of the timeframe, I think it'll be a case of months, not years. By the end of 2016, or even the start of next season, I think we'll see double figures in terms of teams having FIFA professionals." Who's going to be next, then? As a Southampton fan, I certainly wouldn't say no to seeing some top LoL players turning out in our famous red and white stripes.