First eMLS Cup dubbed a success, looks to build on esports momentum
Deeming its first esports event a success, MLS aims to build upon that momentum at the league and local level.
The league held its first competitive tournament, called eMLS Cup, over four days earlier this month at the PAX East gaming convention in Boston. James Ruth, MLS senior director of properties, who oversees the league’s esports efforts, said that while the gaming community was curious and perhaps a bit skeptical of MLS’s first foray into esports, the league felt it won them over by the end of the weekend.
“Given how new this is for our organization, you never know how it’s going to turn out, and we tried to really stay away from very specific numeric expectations — we just wanted to jump in and see how it would go,” Ruth said.
The competition involved EA Sports’ “FIFA 18” game.
Because the league was hosting the event at the larger convention, which draws tens of thousands of attendees, it was hard to track how many people found their way through the eMLS headquarters. But Ruth said the space, which was heavily branded with the eMLS logo and team jerseys, and featured gaming stations of the 19 club participants, received strong traffic. The tournament’s final matches were held on the main stage of the convention.
The final two days were also broadcast on Twitch, where at its peak, more than 30,000 viewers were tuned in. For comparison, viewership on Twitch for the NBA 2K draft held on April 4 peaked at 20,050 viewers, while most Overwatch League games typically average between 60,000 and 100,000 on the platform. Ruth said the league was pleased with the overall reach and international interest in the event, noting that the audience continued to build until the final, and that it was being covered and discussed by the major stakeholders in the game’s competitive scene.
While this edition of eMLS Cup will be the only significant competitive event the league will hold this calendar year, it is already planning additional leaguewide activations alongside the All-Star Game in Atlanta, as well as alongside its annual rivalry week later in the season.
For 2019, MLS plans to have a full slate of esports events, which will see a reprise of the eMLS Cup as well as a full-fledged league that will run in the months between the end of the MLS season in December and the start of the following season in March.
For the remainder of this year, the league is expecting each of the 19 participating eMLS Cup clubs to broaden their esports efforts. The four teams that did not participate in Boston — Atlanta United, D.C. United, LAFC and Real Salt Lake — are also expected to get involved and could each add a player by the end of 2018.
“I think it’s safe to say that every club that participated in eMLS is looking to create similar opportunities on their local levels, and it’s something that they all think they should continue to build against,” Ruth said. While those plans are being worked out, it might include additional appearances from the club players, hosting local tournaments or other gaming-related features and content on the club websites. Ruth noted that for the nearly 90 league and club staff members who attended the event, it was the first esports activation for the vast majority of them.
The eMLS Cup winner — Houston Dynamo’s esports athlete Guillermo Treviño — will now participate and represent Houston and MLS in EA Sports FIFA 18 Global Series playoffs for a chance to reach the FIFA eWorld Cup in August. Players representing New York City FC and the Montreal Impact will also participate in the playoffs, and Ruth said MLS is hopeful more of its teams’ esport players will qualify.
Frank Arnold, Houston Dynamo senior director of special projects and administration, has been overseeing the club’s esports efforts. The four days in Boston have made him even more excited for MLS’s push into esports, he said.
“Everyone is keeping an eye on FIFA to see if it can have the same legs as ‘Overwatch,’ ‘League of Legends’ or ‘DOTA’ in esports,” Arnold said. “After this weekend, I think it can be up there with those big games.”
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