ePremier League: Revolutionary or Regressive?
By Alex Peters
Cast your minds back to just over a year ago. It’s April 2020, the United Kingdom had been plunged into the unknown of a national lockdown. Cities, stadiums and nightclubs went from bustling to desolate overnight and everything was put on hold, including elite sport. Modern life’s constant, 24/7 stream had been momentarily paused as the world came to grips with an invisible enemy. The public were ordered to stay at home, leading to a slew of home work-out, cooking and crafts videos while there was a football-sized hole missing for fans up and down the country. However, as one door closes another door opens and the ePremier League was looking to step on through.
The ePremier League was first introduced in 2018 and was originally billed as a competitive gaming tournament involving the Premier League and Electronic Arts, creator of the ever-popular FIFA series. The first tournament was held in January 2019 and included a gruelling three-month period in which players fought it out for a place in the live club playoffs. All 20 teams are represented by an eSports player and teams play one another until a winner is decided in the ePL final. The first ever winner of the competition was Liverpool fan Donovan “Tekkz” Hunt in London back in March 2019.
In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, the ePL decided to take this concept one step further and conceived the idea of an ePremier League invitational. This was the same premise as the previous ePremier League construct but instead of eSports players, it featured footballers from Premier League clubs e.g., Raheem Sterling, Diogo Jota and Trent Alexander-Arnold. This idea was the temporary fix that football fans desperately needed, as Saturdays upon Saturdays continued to pass without any accumulators letting them down.
Focusing firstly on the performance of the original ePremier League 2020 tournament, it was originally delayed due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The final stages of this tournament are usually played in-person in London, but due to the pandemic it recommenced online on August 13th, 2020, with a prize pool of £40000. It performed well on Twitch, peaking at 14188 viewers for a semi-final game between Arsenal (represented by Tass) vs Watford (represented by Hammond). 46074 hours were collectively streamed and watched whereas the average viewers at any given time were 8013.
FIFA has a generally young fanbase, with the game’s age rating being 3+. This means that the game is readily accessible for gamers at a young age and can be considered quite intuitive to begin with. This then alludes to the rescheduling of the tournament, which would have been at the rear-end of the school holidays. This meant that more children, and viewers in general, could stream the tournament on Twitch and be able to watch it all day. In addition to this, scheduling the tournament during this time would have made it more accessible for new viewers and could have attributed to the growth of the ePremier League.
Now, returning to the ePremier League invitational, this took place between April 21st – April 25th, 2020. Unlike the eSports equivalent, this tournament had no prize pool and only featured players from Premier League clubs. In comparison to the ePL 2020 high of 14188 viewers, the ePL invitation reached a peak of 52,814 viewers for a quarter-final game between Manchester City (Raheem Sterling) and Everton (Andre Gomes). 235,690 hours were collectively watched and streamed whereas the average viewers totalled out to be 13,865.
As previously mentioned, the UK had just entered their first national lockdown. Everyone but essential workers were stuck at home trying to find new ways to fill in their days. The ePL invitational tournament acted as a welcomed, yet brief, substitute for football and was ever more familiar for fans when seeing players from their favourite clubs participate. This allowed for much larger viewing audiences as more people than ever had the free time to watch tournaments like this, aided by a desire to watch new football content and not any more Euro ’96 reruns!
Looking at the statistics, you begin to wonder what sort of impact the ePL invitational had on the ePremier League as a whole. Did it act as a steppingstone for wider, mainstream exposure for football fans alike, or did it only accentuate the disparity between the physical and digital equivalents? For instance, the ePL 2020 tournament peaked at 14,188 viewers, which was only a few hundred viewers more than the average viewers for the ePL invitational. What do we learn from this statistic?
Taking a step back, it is important to note that a FIFA tournament featuring PL players is expected to outperform their eSports counterpart. Fans are much more likely to be invested in a tournament where the players themselves are directly involved as opposed to a FIFA player representing their club. The rug was pulled from under the fans when the lockdown was imposed, with all of football being drawn to a halt and all content temporarily suspended. Fans wanted to see their favourite players play, whether that was with their feet or hands. There are other factors which play a vital part in the ePL invitational outperforming the ePL 2020.
In August 2020, football had returned to our screens but without the fans in the stadium. The Premier League season had been wrapped up with Liverpool being crowned champions and the Champions League was preparing to restart in Portugal. This coincided with the restart of the ePremier League 2019/2020 tournament. Now that regular, competitive and elite football had returned, did previous ePL viewers no longer feel a desire to watch the tournament? Alongside economy-restarting government initiatives such as Eat Out to Help Out, residents of the United Kingdom were generally getting outside more and basking in the summer heat. Is the timing of this tournament the reason that they did not perform so well?
The Premier League is a global institution. When comparing the FIFA eSports equivalent of global exposure, the FIFA 21 Global Series Europe Qualifier 2 outperformed the ePL invitational. Beating their peak viewers by a third with 71,581, they also nearly doubled their collective hours watched with 500,791. In addition to all this, their average viewers totalled out at 39,278; only a few thousand short of the ePL invitational final between Trent and Jota, which amassed 44,388 viewers. It begs the question; can eSports have its own star-studded identity outside of football or is it dependent on it in order to function? Is it its own separate entity or simply just another branch extending from the monstrous General Sherman that is football?
There are already signs of eSports taking on their own identity outside of their club constraints. Tekkz and Tom Leese, both former winners of the ePremier League, make up the eLions duo who represent England internationally in global FIFA tournaments. The eNations Cup is a tournament that was conceived in April 2019 and features players from all across the world representing their home nation. Featuring a prize pool of $100,000, it is clear to see that FIFA eSports is amassing a global audience.
In May 2018, West Ham made history by becoming the first Premier League club to officially sign an eSports player. Sean “Dragonn” Allen was signed to the Hammers and in the following months more clubs started signing eSports players. Eventually, every Premier League team had signed a player which then allowed for tournaments such as the ePremier League to be created now that an empirical basis had been provided.
On the FA’s website, they published an article in February announcing that two additional players in MHAYWXRD and BigMac were joining the eLions team. They had recently won the ‘eLions: The Eliminator’ tournament which featured 14 of the country’s best players battling it out for a place in the squad. Prize pools, player participation and viewing figures only keep growing for eSports in general, it is safe to assume it is only a matter of time before the sport gets thrusted into the limelight.