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USL’s Orange County Soccer Club Kicks Off Groundbreaking Esports Venture

The Southern California USL side will be the first club in its league to field a competitive FIFA team.

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Professional sports teams in the English Premier League, Major League Soccer, the National Basketball Association, and more have followed the trend in recent years of signing competitive video-game players to represent their clubs in virtual competition.

The NBA, for example, just finished the first season of the NBA 2K league in which 17 clubs fielded five-on-five teams in the NBA 2K video game. As part of the Virtual Pro Gaming (VPG) league, organizations field similar teams of 11-on-11 in the EA Sports’ popular FIFA video game.

Last week, Orange County Soccer Club (OCSC) announced that it would be fielding a team in this VPG competition, thus becoming the first pro soccer club in the United States to compete in the competition and the first United Soccer League club to field an esports team.

“I have been playing FIFA games for more than 20 years on multiple platforms,” said James Keston, Orange County Soccer Club owner and president. “As the world of video games increasingly evolves into both a group activity and a spectator sport, it seems like a natural progression for 11 individual gamers, each controlling one player and communicating with one another, to truly act as a team. With our new esports team, anyone with a PlayStation 4 can now experience the excitement and teamwork that we at Orange County SC work tirelessly to cultivate every day as the only professional soccer team between Long Beach and Tijuana.”

Pro soccer clubs from all over the world, including Panathinaikos (Greece), Oxford United (England), and Georgia Revolution FC (USA, NPSL) have already signed on with VPG. For VPG’s Chief Operations Officer Danny Robinson, signing clubs like these seems like a natural step for VPG to take.

SEE MOREStudy Confirms Esports Has Graduated to the Big Leagues

“Generally, esports teams don’t have established fan bases when joining the competitive gaming scene,” said Robinson. “However, professional soccer clubs like Orange Country SC have established fan bases and strong brand names. We all know that soccer fans are a different breed when it comes to fandom. I am excited to connect soccer fans from Southern California, across the country and around the globe to Orange County SC.”

In terms of marketing the team, OCSC has already taken several of the proper steps in giving its esports arm a proper online presence. Fans can follow the team’s progression on Facebook and Twitter, as well as on its Twitch page.

Esports fans can expect unique social content on these pages in the same way that esports organizations in the NBA 2K league manage their online presence. Someone who has played a hand in developing this type of content for several of these organizations is Joe Centeno of Team Infographics.

“There is no denying the success and momentum that these teams are having in the new leagues,” Centeno said. “With a built-in fan base of the current teams, they now have a new avenue for content. These teams also have the opportunity to create new and unique content with an entirely new creative approach.”

As the popularity of competitive esports continues to skyrocket in the United States and the traditional sports world continues to take notice, expect even more clubs to follow in the footsteps of OCSC.

Joe is currently a freelance marketing professional, writer, and podcaster. His work can also be found on the SB Nation network. Joe earned his bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Louisville in 2014 and a master's degree in sport administration from Seattle University in 2017. He can be reached via email at joe@frntofficesport.com.

Esports

Traditional Professional Athletes Could Soon See More Opportunities With Gaming Companies

Los Angeles Lakers guard and avid gamer Josh Hart teamed up with gaming audio company Turtle Beach in new endorsement and consultant role.

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With more traditional professional athletes playing video games, opportunities are ample for companies to capitalize on the trend.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Josh Hart recently revealed a new partnership with gaming headset and audio accessory brand Turtle Beach.

As Hart’s official audio partner, Turtle Beach will outfit him with the brand’s latest gear, with Hart endorsing the brand and consulting on future products. Hart, an avid gamer when not on the court, worked with his management company, Roc Nation Sports, to reach out to Turtle Beach about the idea of working together.

“We strive to align ourselves with partners who share our passion for gaming, and we’re impressed with everything Josh represents both as a pro athlete and as a gamer,” Turtle Beach CEO Juergen Stark said.

To kick off the partnership, Turtle Beach renovated a room in Hart’s home, creating his own personal gaming paradise complete with multiple gaming systems and a variety of high-end gear, plus an assortment of the latest Turtle Beach equipment, and signed jerseys of some of Hart’s favorite professional athletes.

Set up for Josh’s love of gaming, Turtle Beach also made sure Hart can use the room for reviewing his own game footage, watching TV and movies, and listening to music.

In the past, most of Turtle Beach’s partnerships were licensing deals with companies such as Activision, Marvel, and Lucasfilm. However, the past few years the company’s partnerships strategy has shifted to focus on top pro esports teams and players, such as OpTic Gaming, Astralis, Splyce and the Houston Outlaws.

READ MORE: The Boom of Implementing Esports Classes in College Has Begun

The shift also includes content creators and influencers, including DrDisRespect, Siefe and Ali-A.

Working with Hart, a budding NBA star, is a newer endeavor for Turtle Beach, and additional athlete partnerships could be in store in the future — so long as it’s a great fit for both sides.

“When you look at partnerships like this, obviously the most important part is that Josh is actually a core gamer and will use our gear accordingly, and not just for gaming but for audio in general,” said MacLean Marshall, Turtle Beach’s senior director of brand and communications. “However, beyond just using Turtle Beach headsets, we’ll look to Josh for his input as we develop future products, and will work with him to create more content that celebrates our mutual passion for gaming and the benefit of having great audio.”

Marshall mentions Hart specifically as an ambassador of gaming to the NBA, for obvious reasons, but knows there are plenty of others with the potential to provide a new entry point to fans into the world of gaming. Likewise, it provides a bridge from gaming fans to the NBA.

“When I started in the industry years ago, traditional pro athletes weren’t really gaming,” Marshall said. “Maybe there were a few here or there, but traditional athletes were mostly just traditional athletes because gaming was more niche and not as mainstream as it is today.

“We’re now at the point where there’s a variety of younger pro athletes who grew up playing games, who still play games in their spare time, and it’s great to see it as another equally exciting passion for them, and to see the crossover between our respective audiences and fans.”

READ MORE: VY Esports Capitalizes on Trend of Traditional Sports Entering New Space

Hart joined the Turtle Beach team at a busy time of the year, with the company amidst launching its new lineup of gaming headsets while gearing up for the holiday season.  

That, along with all the usual intricacies of managing and maintaining a great partnership, Marshall isn’t sure if and when Turtle Beach might add another professional athlete partner, but it certainly isn’t out of the question.

“We’ve been cognizant — not just with Josh Hart, but all our partnerships in general — to make sure they’re focused on the right thing,” Marshall said. “For example, this partnership isn’t about us, or even about Josh as an NBA star. Rather, it’s about Josh Hart the avid gamer.

“So, sure, we could go after more [pro athletes], but there’s quite a bit of effort and energy that goes into partnerships like this, and it’s more important to us to deliver on our part with Josh, as opposed to bringing on others and potentially overstretching our bandwidth. This is about quality, not quantity, and we’re excited to do more with Josh in the future.”

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Inside the NFL’s New Partnership With ‘Fortnite’

One of the world’s most popular video game and the National Football League are connecting with fans through cosmetic DLC.

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With “Fortnite” now boasting well over 50 million players worldwide, the game has become a mainstream hit. Americans have had a similar relationship with the National Football League for decades now.

Last week, the two brands announced a partnership that would allow “Fortnite” players to add the uniform of their favorite NFL team to their avatar after purchasing it from the store.

The partnership should come as no surprise, really. Since the launch of Battle Royale mode, NFL players have expressed their love for the game. Some have even taken to playing competitively in their free time or being an active part of the game’s online community.

Rachel Hoagland, vice president and head of gaming and esports at the NFL, stated that this played a factor in bringing this partnership to fruition.

READ MORE: How You Can Make a Career Out of Video Games

“’Fortnite’ has captured the attention of so many different groups of people. It’s moved well beyond just being a game,” she said. “I think it’s fair to say its popularity among NFL players was a factor in us moving forward with this partnership. There were many others, including its wide reach and global audience, as well as the opportunity for the NFL to be the first branded sports integration in the game.”

Prior to the launch of these skins, NFL teams were putting together activations with Twitch and YouTube content creators. Notably, the Detroit Lions invited Ninja (arguably the most popular name in the space) to a game back in September.

Ninja returned the favor by wearing a Lions uniform on his avatar in his streams when the uniform skins launched. The streamer also bridges the gap between gamers, the NFL, and the two fan bases by appearing on television shows like “NFL Live” every now and then.

“The outfit integration gave us an opportunity to do even more by bringing the popular influencers in early, and amass hours of gameplay previewing the outfits,” Hoagland said.

To build on it, content creator NICKMERCS also played alongside Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans in the NFL’s Ultimate Squad contest stream.

Hoagland can attest that the working relationship between the NFL and Epic Games, the “Fortnite” developer, has been a positive experience. For that reason, look for more from this partnership in the future.

READ MORE: Study Confirms Esports Has Graduated to the Big Leagues

“The Epic team is very creative, collaborative, and more than willing to work with and incorporate our thoughts and ideas,” Hoagland stated. “We are a good complement to each other.”

The skins are not currently available for purchase in the “Fortnite” digital store, as the content available to players regularly rotates. The outfits will reportedly return in the near future.

Who knows, we may even see some additional NFL tie-in content somewhere down the line.

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The Boom of Implementing Esports Classes in College Has Begun

The UNLV School of Hospitality realized esports could blaze a trail academically and provide opportunities students may have never had before.

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League of Legends fans watching the 2018 League of Legends World Championship Finals sponsored by Mastercard on November 3, 2018 in Incheon, South Korea. Photo by Hannah Smith/ESPAT Media for Mastercard

Working as a marketing executive at a Las Vegas casino property on the Strip in 2013, Robert Rippee helped host a small EA Sports video game competition at a bar within the resort.

Rippee was shocked as young adults filled the bar to watch the video games and spend their evening. Fast forward a few years, and Rippee is a professor within the UNLV School of Hospitality who realized the school’s International Gaming Institute was missing a key industry segment: esports.

He approached the executive director, who agreed to let Rippee experiment.

“We thought it could serve both academic and industry interests and, maybe, blaze a trail,” said Rippee, who is now in the third semester of running the lab.

SEE MORE: How You Can Make a Career Out of Video Games

Rippee created a lab that would put students in practice to create a sustainable and viable business model for esports venues on the Strip. The lab at UNLV isn’t meant to teach students to manage teams or create games, but provide a real ecosystem to showcase esports information that might be relevant to casino resorts. Casinos have certainly noticed the potential of esports — specifically the Luxor, as the iconic pyramid casino is home to Esports Arena Las Vegas.

“We want to give them information in context they understand,” Rippee said. “We know the ranges of profitability for theaters, nightclubs, retail, restaurants. You can’t be worse than those; you have to be better.”

While the esports lab is housed within the school of hospitality, Rippee said it has proven to be multidisciplinary, drawing upper-class students in architecture, engineering, business, and even law school.

The first three semesters have been focused on the casino resorts and how they might be able to implement a successful esports operation. The lab features guest speakers including developers, tournament management companies and a wide array of other professionals involved in esports.

SEE MORE: Study Confirms Esports Has Graduated to the Big Leagues

Now, Rippee said it’s time to potentially expand beyond that industry.

“We’re toying with the idea to go beyond,” he said. “Can we create a standalone business in a shopping center or a theater?”

Rippee also said creating more courses centered on esports is not out of the question, as esports is continuing to evolve and further prove its worth as a viable industry. He said condensed, executive style courses — potentially online — are especially of interest as the school regularly receives requests from non-UNLV students.

“There are lots of elements to esports to expand horizontally and vertically,” Rippee said.

At least 10 schools from across the country and internationally have also reached out to Rippee to see how to potentially structure an esports curriculum. Rippee said there’s little doubt esports will continue to grow, especially with backing from professional sports executives and athletes.

He understands the infatuation with the games. While not an intense gamer himself, Rippee said he enjoys watching professionals apply their craft and the excitement is no different than other sports.

Having formal education in the industry provides passionate esports fans an avenue into a career, just as with traditional sports.

“There’s a lot of growth in esports globally, so people are starting to wonder how to prepare students to be those employees that have the background and knowledge,” he said. “This is a paradigm driven by a younger generation, a generation that’s grown up with video games. This is not a fad; it’s not getting any smaller.”

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