While still in its early phases, the popularity and appeal of eMLS has been growing steadily over the past few years and if Season 2 is to go by, eMLS should see good omens for 2020 season, which could become the biggest year for the league to date.
The third season of eMLS took off on January 10 with Series 1 at Philadelphia, which saw a fierce battle between 25 FIFA teams who duked it out for the title and US $7,500 in prize winnings that comes with it. In the end, it was FC Cincinnati player Gordon "Fiddle" Thornsberry who triumphed and pocketed the gold medal.
Series 1 drew in 1.1 million views on Twitch, which is miles from the numbers other major esports titles accumulate, yet it was still the eMLS's single most-viewer stream broadcast to date. The event continued the trend set in 2018 and 2019, which sees a steady increase in popularity. With its third season on the way, the future seems bright for eMLS and its 25 teams, who are prepping for the League Series 2, set to take off on Saturday, February 15, In Portland, Oregon.
"That’s going to be another great moment for us to celebrate the cross-section of gaming and soccer culture," said MLS's Vice President of Properties James Ruth, who also oversees eMLS.
"Portland’s got one of the most fervent fan bases in MLS, and I think that fan base is going to come to bear for League Series Two and create a unique environment."
In its inaugural season in 2018, eMLS featured only one event - eMLS Cup, which saw 19 FIFA players compete at gaming festival PAX EAST in Boston. Since then eMLS came a long way, as it implemented two Series events and is now set to build on its competitive landscape by adding even more events to put themselves in a position to grow their fanbase and give the players a wider breadth of competition.
The league's decision to increase the number of teams from 22 in 2019 to 25, as well as its expansion by adding two League Series events that precede the prestigious eMLS Cup, has proven to be a successful move. While the league has ambitions to continue to grow by adding more events, Ruth claimed they will approach further expansion cautiously, and rather prioritize consistency.
"But for us, we also think it’s something that has to be done sparingly because at the end of the day, we’re trying to build a fan base, and one of the biggest components to building a fan base is just consistency."
While the eMLS Cup 2020 is still over a month away, the eMLS league has been working hard to appeal to a wider range of audience by introducing prominent athletes to the scene, namely the former Philadelphia Eagles running back and Super Bowl champion Jay Ajayi, who became a professional esports athlete, when he signed with Philadelphia Union's eMLS team.
Despite all the hype surrounding the first-ever NFL pro-turned esports pro, he could have hoped for a better start of his esports career. Ajayi participated in the eMLS Series 1, where he received a beating from his opponents, finishing his maiden esports tournament second-to-last with a 2-0-10 record.
"It was an eye-opener for sure," said Ajayi.
"It was my introduction into the gaming world. I’d never seen anything or been to an event before, so that was something interesting that I had to go through. I wish I would’ve put on a better showing, but all in all, it was a really cool experience and a good introduction into the world of esports."
While the esports industry continues to boom, the sports games tend to experience significantly slower growth compared to other more popular genres, such as MOBAs (League of Legends, Dota 2), FPS titles (Call of Duty, CS:GO) and Battle Royale games (Apex Legends, Fortnite).
The lower popularity of FIFA and other sports-related video games, is also fairly obvious in the smaller prize pools compared to top-tier esports titles. To put it in a perspective, throughout the 2019 season of eMLS a total of $73,500 was distributed among players, while other A-Tier esports titles offer prizepools that easily reach and surpass $1 million.
Just recently, it was announced CS:GO will see a new tournament series - FLASHPOINT, which will offer over $2 million in prize winnings, while Apex Legends, which is slowly establishing itself as one of the major esports titles, announced a $3 million Apex Legends Global Series.