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Volume 22 No. 32
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MLS planning next steps in its esports efforts

Attendees at the first eMLS event in Boston last April had the chance to try their hand at FIFA 18 on PlayStation.
Photo: MLS

Following what it views as a successful debut year for eMLS, MLS is looking to build out its esports efforts with additional programming and content in 2019, including its first regular-season competition.

EMLS has held two leaguewide events this year, the first a multiday eMLS Cup in Boston in April and the other on Aug. 1 during All-Star week in Atlanta, as well as other in-market activations such as competitions where fans play against professional gamers. EMLS players also competed in several global EA Sports FIFA tournaments, highlighted by Sporting Kansas City’s Alex Betancourt, who was the only American to qualify for the FIFA eWorld Cup Championship in August.

Streamed on Twitch, the eMLS Cup reached more than 30,000 viewers at its peak, and its All-Star week event topped out at more than 52,000 viewers on that platform.

James Ruth, MLS senior director of properties and who oversees the eMLS efforts, said the league was extremely happy with the level of viewership and engagement it saw with eMLS in year one, but it also recognizes the chance to do more.

“It came down to frankly the amount of programming we were doing,” Ruth said. “We felt we did the major events really well and it was great to see that viewership kicked up, but we think we can provide more consistency throughout the year, creating consistent moments for fans and building narratives around the players.”

That is leading the league to launch a regular-season competition that it is calling the eMLS League Series. Played over two events in January and February, players will not only compete for prize money and a trophy, but also for seeding for the eMLS Cup, which is again being planned for in the spring. The league will also hold an event during All-Star week and others could be added.

This year, 19 of the 23 MLS clubs took part in the two eMLS events. Atlanta United and D.C. United are expected to add players for 2019, as is expansion team FC Cincinnati. That would leave only two teams without an eMLS player: LAFC and Real Salt Lake, though both are expected to eventually join.

MLS is also looking to raise the profile of eMLS players and will be bringing several of them on its media and marketing tour, during which they will be treated the same as on-field players: taking part in photo shoots, interviews and other pieces of content that the league and its teams will disperse on their own digital and social channels throughout the year. The league will also be focusing on publishing more content that shows the crossover between the on-field and digital games of soccer.

As EA and FIFA have launched their own global series of events around the game, Ruth said the league will look to highlight more of its players as they perform globally, similar to how the league celebrates players who get called up for national team duty.

EMLS also expects to add more corporate sponsors in its second year. PlayStation will be the presenting sponsor of both the league series and the Cup competition, and Ruth said there are ongoing discussions with several league partners on how they can be integrated into the platform. For example, Wells Fargo sponsored the All-Star event, and players wore jerseys that had its logo on the front.

Engine Shop is the lead agency for all of MLS’s e-sports efforts.

For more coverage of the business of esports, visit our partners, esportsobserver.com