OE SCHMIDT’S Ireland party was still grappling with jetlag early last September when their base in Chiba, just east of Tokyo, was invaded by a torrent of humanity that spilled out of the Kaihimmakuhari Station and through to the nearby Makuhari Messe centre for the annual Tokyo Gaming convention.

It started first thing on the Saturday morning and the meandering mass of mostly teenagers and young adults could still be seen stretching all the way down Kokosai-odori Avenue, past the team hotel and into the 780,000 sq ft monstrosity across the road until well into the afternoon. Here was a window into a very different sporting culture.

Thousands of those converging on Chiba that weekend — the same influx happened the next day — would have had little or no interest in the Rugby World Cup due to kick off on the far side of the capital the following week.

These weren’t sports fans as we have come to know them, they were devotees of esports, which is competitive, organised online gaming.

This is big business. It was estimated prior to the coronavirus pandemic that the industry would be worth over $1bn by the end of 2020. Competitions held online and at enormous venues jammed with thousands of spectators can offer millions of euros, pounds, and dollars in prize money and some of the world’s biggest brands are on board.

Teams and franchises are competing on online platforms such as Twitch. Players wear branded gear and boast online bios replete with club histories, earnings, playing traits and other tidbits in much the same way you would find for a Lionel Messi or a Jonathan Sexton. This is as far removed as you can imagine from some kids ‘playing’ video games in the solitude of their own bedrooms.

“It’s the world of competitive gaming,” says Trev Keane, head of sports/esports with 7F. “Saying ‘I play esports’ is like saying ‘I play Olympics’. You don’t. Nobody ‘plays’ Olympics. They compete in the 100m or the hurdles and, like that, esports is a complex ecosystem that is led by developers and publishers and they are the rights holders within the space.”

The sector’s roots can be traced all the way back to 1972 when students in Stanford University held the first esports tournament — the brilliantly named Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics, first prize a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine — through to the Donkey Kong events of the 1980s and the explosion in internet capabilities in the 2000s.

It’s in the last 10 years that the concept has gone stratospheric with further advances in technology, the interest taken in it by mainstream investors and the advent of dedicated teams and leagues. Don’t be fooled by the name either: esports is a vast church that incorporates traditional sports games like Fifa but they are only a small part of the congregation.

Shoot-em-up and concept games such as League of Legends, Overwatch, Call of Duty and Fortnite attract the most devoted worshipers. The annual Fifa offerings may, at the height of a football season, just about break into the top 10 but some of the world’s most famous athletes, sports franchises, and associated stakeholders have woken up to the potential of this virtual world.

The expertise and background of some of those involved with Ireland esports, the governing body set up to promote and push the sector forward in this country, speaks for the business strength of the model. Keane, who has a background in commercial business and sports marketing and established the Celtic esports league five years ago with 64 Fifa teams across seven countries, is one of the body’s founding members.

He has since helped Premier League players, teams, and rugby franchises to develop their own esports business ventures and that growing imprint of traditional sports in this area has been evident during the current crisis with all manner of virtual offerings from those we are more accustomed to seeing and cheering or jeering in the flesh.

EA Sports this week launches the Stay and Play Cup involving players from 20 of Europe’s biggest clubs playing Fifa online. Trent Alexander-Arnold will represent Liverpool. Formula One has been hosting virtual Grand Prix in the absence of the real thing and horse racing’s Grand National in England went virtual. Rugby league, ice hockey, NASCAR: The list of sports emigrating online is endless.

“When I look at a team or a player that comes to me and they want to explore the esports space, the first thing I will tell them is that it is a different audience,” says Keane. “You don’t set up an esports team and expect people to turn up at the turnstile of your football or rugby team. It has to be an extension of your brand and it has to have a different approach.”

Esports’ numbers, in terms of participants and spectators, have rocketed as a result of the pandemic and the government responses that have brought traditional sporting practises and events, like so many other sectors of society, to a standstill.

Bristol Bears owner Steve Lansdown remarked recently that his rugby club is the only business he is involved in that does not have a recurring income right now. If esports has been hit by the loss of similar stadium-sized events then it is far more flexible in the face of the downturn with its continuing online presence.

People are waking up to that.

EANE can’t ever remember being approached by an Irish brand or agency before Covid-19 but he has had three or four approaches in the last fortnight alone. It’s easy to see why. Who knows when sport will return in some sort of recognisable form and when exactly will people be comfortable with sharing an intimate space with thousands of others?

The irony is that everything that made sports such a commercial juggernaut has now proven to be a crippling weakness. Stadium and crowd issues aside, sport’s great strength has been the need to consume it live and in full. As we’ve seen with the proliferation of classic games on TV recently, they can only ever be of limited appeal and, in a commercial sense, of little value.

Today’s teenagers and young adults digest their ‘content’ in their own time and in a manner of their own choosing. Esports facilitates that while offering the same sense of community and, as an added bonus, the opportunity to connect with the people who are streaming it all. It’s no wonder that there are an estimated 700,000 gamers in Ireland alone.

Ireland has three top-class Fifa players. Limerick’s Conran Tobin, known as Ranners, plays for the AS Roma team, Cormac Dooley from Galway represents Nashville in the eMLS and Dubliner Eric Finn has reached the final of the World Cup. The Irish team Phelan Gaming competes in the likes of League of Legends and Hearthstone competitions.

Among the other pockets of endeavour here is the esports collegiate scene run by Aidan Boyle and the events hosted by Bryan McNamara’s RAID but what’s clear is that the esports concept, while outside the mainstream sporting and commercial conversations in Ireland for now, is only going to grow.

And grow and grow.

“I think back to ‘95 and ‘96 and Wimbledon (Football Club) looking to move to Dublin and joining the Premier League and that was because we wanted to be part of something that was big and sexy. With esports you have that opportunity,” says Keane, a Limerick man based in Kilkenny who follows Liverpool and Munster.

“You can buy your place at the top table with a franchise and compete against the big teams from the US and Canada and UK and France. When the right person with the right money and the right vision gets behind that you will see Ireland make that step up with a Dublin-based esports team that is competing at the top-tier of Call of Duty or League of Legends. That’s exciting.”

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