Never let it be said that theis not ahead of the curve.
No sooner had our own Brendan O’Brien drawn back the curtain on the world of Esports in last Tuesday’s paper than Munster Rugby announced it was entering into one of the world’s fastest-growing sports phenomena, partnering with an existing Irish Esports team competing in the sector’s most popular game.
Henceforth, Phelan Gaming will be known as Munster Rugby Gaming, their 2020 season starting in June in a new 12-team northern European league playing an action-strategy battle game called League of Legends.
It is about as far away from Munster Rugby’s core as you could imagine yet for the province’s Head of Enterprise Enda Lynch there is more compatibility between these two worlds than first meets the eye.
"We’ve found a great Irish team, the most successful Esports team in Ireland with a young CEO in Ciaran Walsh who is absolutely brilliant and knows the gaming industry very well," Lynch said
Here is the story of how an Irish sporting institution with a rich heritage built on strong community foundations and the lore of real-life rugby warriors came to embrace a competitive but virtual genre that is growing exponentially faster than any live sport and is showing no signs of being stopped in its tracks.
The 2018 League of Legends World Championship, staged in South Korea, drew a larger viewing audience than that year’s NFL Superbowl, 100 million to 98m, and Lynch said: “This is far beyond what people who are not involved in gaming think it is. This is a growing space and whatever about Munster in it, there will come a time when traditional media or whatever it becomes will all be talking about Esports, absolutely.”
So what about Munster’s decision to get involved and partner with Phelan Gaming. The team is not at a world championship or even European elite level yet the province has spotted a potentially successful team it feels fits with its rugby core.
“Munster held a very successful (fundraising) dinner in New York for the last two years,” Lynch explained. “I was helping with it two years ago and was over there and took some time out to visit and meet with some of the bigger New York sports franchises, the Mets, the Yankees, the Giants.
“All three of them but particularly the Mets were investing heavily in Esports. My job as Head of Enterprise is to look at new trends in sports and can build additional opportunities for brand and revenue and this was clearly something we needed to keep an eye on.
“At the same time back in Europe, Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona and Besiktas and many others were also getting into it. At the time when I spoke to the Mets, they had just bought a franchise from Activision Blizzard, who run the Overwatch game. They had created a franchised Esports league for their game in the States and sold each of the 10 franchises for $10m a pop and the Mets had bought one. The Mets have since bought a second franchise for Call of Duty worth $20m. That’s in the US, it’s different in Europe but there is a market out there. You have eyeballs (on the Esports games), you have active gamers, you have brands who want to be associated with it.
“It will be a demo sport at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, and people are identifying it as something they want to be engaged in.
“As a brand, we want to engage with this audience. We want our brand to be a part of that environment.”
At a time when rugby revenues have ground to a halt due to the coronavirus outbreak and the indefinite suspension of the 2019-20 season at both club and international level, it may seem more than a little odd to see a branch of the IRFU get involved in a completely unrelated venture yet Munster Rugby believe they are investing something other than hard cash into Esports.
“It’s an investment of our brand. Munster Rugby isn’t in a position where we can make huge commercial investments, no sports team in the world is, with where we are at the moment with no sport. So this is a brand investment.
“We have a very valuable asset in Munster Rugby and I hate to talk about assets in a sports connotation but this is the business of sport. We have something which is very valuable, the Munster Rugby brand, something people are passionate about and that we do our best to nurture and care for and recognise. But it’s a very valuable thing that people want to engage with and we have that which we can bring to conversations with other people.
“This is one of those occasions, where we’re growing and it allows them to engage with a wider sponsor audience and a wider supporter audience. So there are things you can often do in sport that don’t cost money, that don’t cost investment.
“My role in Munster for two years now has been to identify those areas, like the High Performance Leadership Programme and other ideas and just assess which ones can we become involved without making significant investments or causing a drain on the core of what Munster Rugby’s about.
“We’re not rolling in cash, no rugby club is, so we don’t have the ability to invest like that so we have to be very clever and smart about how we do it. So we’re not like the Mets investing $10m in a franchise, that’s not us. We’re not investing cash in this and we’re continuing to nurture and invest in our core, which is rugby, from grassroots right up to the senior team.”
“For Munster, the commercials are secondary to being able to use our brand to reach into a new area where we know an awful lot of our younger supporters who play rugby at the weekend from minis right up to collegiate rugby, they’re also involved in Esports and we want to engage with them in that as well.
“If you stick to purely on-field activity and the core of your sport, in any sport, at some point you’re relying on on-pitch performance and if on-pitch performance doesn’t work then your business model is going to struggle.
“More and more clubs are beginning to look at other ways at which their brand works. Esports is just an extension of the Munster brand and if that allows us in the long term to have more followers and more people coming to our games, more people that we can talk about rugby to and talk about our core product and bring them to what is still our bread and butter, then great.”