Earlier this year the Adelaide Crows sent shockwaves amongst the sporting and gaming scenes by announcing the acquisition of an Australian esports team, Legacy Esports, for an undisclosed six figure sum.
It's the first major move by any Australian sporting organisation into the world of esports. But why now, why Legacy, and what's the plan going forward? To get some answers, I had a chat with Nigel Smart, the chief operating officer of the Crows.
"I wouldn't be surprised if you've got at least a dozen AFL teams having a look at the space now," Smart, a former Crows and three time All Australian AFL player himself, told me over the phone. It's understandable given the landscape: the last few years has seen a multitude of current and former NBA players buy into esports, along with multiple football clubs and investment groups.
According to Smart, the club started looking at the Australian esports industry around 12 to 13 months ago. "We've spent a fair bit of time looking at what's happening globally and also in Australia and pretty much looking at the various ways we can get involved in the esports system generally - everything from just a soft public relations approach to sponsoring leagues, tournaments, having events here in Adelaide to getting involved in a team and that led to the engagement and the acquisition of Legacy [Esports]."
What makes the investment so intriguing is that the Crows, and much of the AFL more generally, aren't an internet-facing organisation. They have a website, a presence on mainstream social media channels, their YouTube pushes out content daily, and their players use the internet just as much as anybody else. But the world of gaming, livestreaming, and the level of access gamers give fans over Twitter and Twitch is a whole world apart from what the AFL has been accustomed to.
Put simply, it's a completely different crowd. And it's a question any traditional sporting organisation has to answer: how do you marry the traditional AFL audience who attend matches and watch games on TV with people who watch streams at their will on their phones, computers.
Smart's response: the audiences might not meet in the middle at all.
"You do have a traditional football audience, you do have a traditional - now we're building out a traditional women's team for us as well, in terms of that fanbase," he said. "With esports, I think there are some sweet sports in bringing the traditional and esports audience together, but it needs to be authentic at the same time. From my point of view, there's no rush on bringing those two together too quickly."
The fascinating element about the move by the Crows is the level of stability and assurance they can bring to esports. Australian esports, for the almost decade and a half I've been observing, competing, organising and covering, is known for its volatility. Teams come and go. Players chop and change teams all the time. There's no shortage of drama, but there certainly is a shortage of money and support.
Even high profile leagues and organisations, like the OPL, frequently run into issues. The turmoil involving Tainted Minds management and its players caught the attention of players and press worldwide. The most well run teams in Australia do so on a shoestring, although Smart acknowledged that the more prominent teams (like Legacy, Chiefs Esports Club, Avant Garde and so on) have done grown exceptionally well.
Team houses have been upheld as the ideal model for professional gamers and professional teams to maintain the optimal practice environment. But over the last 24 hours, a raft of allegations have come out about the living conditions for Tainted Minds, one of Australia's top eight League of Legends teams.
It's the nature of a grassroots industry, really. That's not unique to esports. But the strength of that homegrown element is why the Crows are adamant that they want to grow the local scene, and Legacy, rather than using their resources and clout to dictate terms to the League of Legends, SMITE, Counter-Strike and other competitive communities.
"Esports in Australia will grow, but that kind of growth and trendline will be very dependent on the various investment and partnerships that various teams and individual players can make, building up the audience and growing that audience," Smart explained.
"That's one thing we're looking at in Legacy: how do we grow the audience, and how do we become an esports team of choice for someone in Australia. It's early days, but I think what you'll find is there's interest in the space and I think you'll find teams and individual players will be the beneficiaries as there's growth in the overall market. Our intention is to support and grow the overall esports system, not to come in and take it over with an AFL lens - that's not what we're on about. We're basically trying to work with current management and build up those elements for Legacy that will make it a very good esports club."
Something that will need to grow, not just to justify the Crows' investment but also for the long term health of the Australian scene, is the story around esports. The message right now, one pushed by teams, players, public relations and organisers, still centres around legitimacy. Esports is real. The industry is growing exponentially. Players can make a legitimate living and massive international fanbases through esports, the story goes.
But that story will need to mature, especially if the industry decides that traditional audiences can't or won't convert to esports. I asked Smart what the Crows plan for content was over the next few years, and he replied that it was a discussion that was still playing out internally.
"It's a question internally in Legacy that we're trying to work through. How do we set up a system of content that captures all these elements to drive a better fan experience? So there are some learnings from an AFL perspective, but the content team in our AFL club don't necessarily fully understand and drives the fan for an esports that might be following SMITE or Rocket League."
One obvious area for collaboration is a social one, by having the clubs' various AFL players mix with Legacy players in-game or on streams. It's not a simple matter though: Legacy's League team is permanently based in Sydney, while their other teams are spread across the country.
The word gaming house conjures images of sponsorships, professional competition and hardcore video games, but in Australia the reality is much more common. a group of guys and girls getting together, bringing their computers or TVs with them and turning a multi-bedroom house into a geeky fiefdom.
"There is some crossover, and there's some synergy that we can create between Legacy and AFL players," Smart explained. "I'm not quite sure of the women players that are in our women's team, but certainly from our men's team there are players that are active gamers, and that's what they do when they're not playing footy. They're keen to get involved."
The Crows have already begun having commercial discussions with clients around Legacy, although Smart noted that the club is very much working with Legacy's existing management to bolster their operations. "Our approach is one of not to come in and probably determine a direction across the board, but one of working with the current management and players and saying, 'Right, we have capabilities in various areas we'd like to help out,' and then start to work through those systematically."
Merchandising was explicitly mentioned, which makes a great deal of sense. Gamers are more than happy to drop money down on branded mice and mousepads, and that's not to mention the growing market for in-game skins and items that props up around major tournaments. The International every year allows players to purchase pennants for particular teams, and Counter-Strike fans have been able to purchase virtual autographs and stickers for various teams.
But that'll take time to build. For now, the Crows are focused on applying their background in maximising player performance to Legacy. They'll also be using their financial strength to support Legacy to travel overseas, something Smart said local esports organisations should aim for more.
"That's what we try and give some certainty to Legacy players that when they play for Legacy they will be required to travel internationally and to train and also have those experiences from an international context to play against the best players and best teams and become better players themselves. I think in Australia you can get to a certain level, but it's that kind of competition, that international element, just fine tune and polish that gives players that element of confidence knowing they can compete with the best players in the world."
Along the way, the Crows will be hoping that Legacy becomes a defacto team for esports fans to follow - and with that, a new audience that would have never engaged with a traditional, very Australian, football club.