Aston Villa’s AVFC Gaming is a fresh take on FIFA18 amongst football clubs

The rise of esports is no longer a secret. The gaming industry has blossomed, and from allowing individual players to compete with each other on a competitive platform, now sports teams and leagues are seeing the potential to organise the fun.

Some of the most proactive have been the very biggest names in sport. The NBA launched the NBA 2K League last year. 17 of the 30 teams in the association have their own team, each boasting a roster of six gamers from around the states. The NHL have just completed their inaugural World Gaming Championship, and MLS launched eMLS.

On these shores, FIFA 18 — one of the most popular video games in the world — has played an increasing role in eSports. La Liga have launched a virtual tournament sponsored (among others) by McDonald’s, while Ligue 1, the Bundesliga and Australia’s A-League have all gotten involved in some way. Indeed, it’s honestly a bit surprising the Premier League haven’t formed their own league. That may yet come soon.

However, a some top English clubs like Manchester City and West Ham have jumped in, and it’s only a matter of time before more follow suit. In a very different way, though, Championship side Aston Villa have done just that, launch their own esports venture this summer.

With the financial advantages of the sports gaming industry — between advertisements, sponsorships and the chance to grow a new fanbase, there is money to be had — one could say it’s an easy decision for a club to jump on the bandwagon. The way Villa have developed their esports presence, though, is quite different to the others.

Despite their status in the second tier of English football, this is still a massive brand based in Britain’s Second City, but Villa don’t necessarily have the opportunity to capitalize on the financial boom that Premier League teams have had due to soaring broadcast revenues over the last few seasons. But by tuning their focus on smaller-scale, Villa-specific interests, they’ve found their own niche in esports.

Villa’s own esports league is a fan-centric experience, rather than one which has designs on becoming a professional outfit in the mould of Schalke 04, PSG or Roma. As Will Radford, head of digital media and content of Villa, said, “The launch of AVFC Gaming is all about embracing the fans doing what they love. We want to be able to reward the Villa faithful in their social lives and our partnership with the European Gaming League allows to do this in a way no other club has.”

So rather than look to jump on the esports bandwagon, this initiative is just another one of the club’s efforts to generate more engagement from their fans. Recently, they have integrated new technology into season and member cards and signed a kit partnership with Fanatics, an American brand, and Luke 1977, a local company founded by a lifelong Villan.

So far, the initiative appears to have been a success: around 1,750 fans have signed up for AVFC Gaming, and whilst that number would start to look vanishingly small if they were to be seated in an otherwise-empty Villa Park, this first series of tournaments represents a perfect place for the club to foster an online community of fans who both love the club and love FIFA 18.

Aston Villa’s venture into the gaming industry reveals a second side to the esports industry.

There’s the big-name, commercial side with advertisements, sponsorships and extravagant prizes, but there’s also the side that focuses on a team-specific, local environment. While the champions of the NBA 2K League will ultimately take home $300,000, the winner of the AVFC league will receive the pitch-side tickets to matches or signed photos.

But rather than look at it in a directly commercial way, Villa have seen the potential that esports participation can have. It’s the indirect impact that this could have on the club’s fan engagement they’ll be hoping bears fruit.

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