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Why NFL stars are getting serious about esports

Steve Shoup

Most football fans will probably be guilty of wasting a few hours playing sports simulators like Madden. But it seems that a whole host of NFL stars are starting to realise that video games could actually give them a whole new career path once they hang up their football jerseys.


This has become especially true ever since esports came on the scene. Previously, playing video games was something of a solitary affair. But with esports hosting massive multiplayer tournaments that attract millions of viewers, it seems that competitive gaming has become a billion dollar business.


Just to put you in the picture, the 2018 League of Legends World Championships was watched by a staggering 200 million viewers at once. When you compare this with the fact that only 98.2 million people watched Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots slug it out in Super Bowl LIII, it’s clear that esports is on the rise.


As a result, it’s little surprise to find that some of football’s most enterprising characters have sought to get involved in the competitive gaming trend. Take the Pittsburgh Steelers receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is well known as being a gaming fan of titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops.


But where Smith-Schuster differs from the rest of us is the fact that he revealed that he was partnering up with the esports team, FaZe Clan, to launch a special merchandising deal. What’s truly remarkable is the fact that the football star even went one step further by actually moving into FaZe Clan’s gaming residence in Los Angeles so that he could improve his Call of Duty gameplay.


Then there’s the likes of the Los Angeles Rams guard, Rodger Saffold. This player is another massive Call of Duty fan who went on to set up his own channel on the live streaming site, Twitch. From here, it’s evident that Saffold got the esports bug, as he went on to form his own esports team.


By teaming up with the pro gamer, Kahreem Horseley, Saffold was able to set up the Rise Nation esports team in 2014. It’s been interesting to see how many other top US sports stars have also realised how setting up an esports team could bring in some extra revenues. From NBA legends like Shaquille O’Neal to the baseball player Alex Rodriguez, it seems that esports is the natural place for sports stars to head once their gaming careers are in their twilight.


Esports is clearly big business, and with the fact that Dallas Cowboys owner, Mark Cuban, has recently invested in the competitive gaming start-up, Unikrn, it shows that all levels of the NFL world are keen to get involved. Unikrn have hit the headlines by offering an esports betting service that’s broadly comparable with the likes of liveesportsbetting.com, and the fact that you can now bet on esports shows just how popular and legitimate the activity is getting.


Savvy football stars like Smith-Schuster clearly realise that it’s the streamable technology that holds the key to esports’ success. The footballer recently got together with rap stars like Drake and Travis Scott to join the esports player, Ninja, in a game of Fortnite. With over 600,000 people tuning into watch, it’s events like this that creates a buzz about esports and it’s hard to imagine other sports being able to follow suit.


What’s interesting is that it’s not just NFL players who are getting the esports bug. Several US colleges have started entering their own esports teams alongside their regular football squads, and the National Association of Collegiate Esports has even been set up to provide scholarships and regulate the gameplay.


But it’s the fact that NFL teams are now investing in esports that could be the most surprising phenomenon. This was seen at the launch of the Overwatch League that saw the team owners of New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams splashing out a modest $20 million to get the franchise rights to esports teams in the league.


Robert Kraft could have rested easy after the Patriots’ Super Bowl success, but by owning the Boston Uprising team, he will also stand to benefit from the immense revenues generated by the Overwatch League. Similarly, you may know Stan Kroenke from his ownership of the Los Angeles Rams, but the businessman didn’t think twice about spending a few million on the rights for an LA-based Overwatch team. All of which shows that the NFL and esports are getting evermore intertwined.



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