Press x to win: sport's digital battlefield

The AFL Commission tried hard to dissuade the Melbourne Cricket Club from staging three big-time soccer internationals at the MCG in July. Now we can see why.

The three International Champions Cup matches might have been bruise-free friendlies, featuring much style and little substance, but they showcased all the glamour and glitz that we've come to associate with European soccer, in particular the English Premier League.

"If you haven't got a decent digital offering for teen gamers, you haven't got much going for you at all."
Charles Happell, Managing Director, Happell Media

Real Madrid played Manchester City and AS Roma in a three-team round robin that somehow, in spite of the obvious lack of competitive edge, drew a total of 221,262 fans to the MCG over the three nights.

But it was the final contest – between Cristiano Ronaldo's Spanish giants and Man City – that really raised eyebrows, attracting as it did 99,382 to the famous stadium in spite of the wintry weather, dodgy surface, expensive tickets and distance to the action.

Meanwhile, the indigenous code was being played down the road at Etihad Stadium. There Carlton met a Hawthorn side bumped from their home game at the MCG and drew barely 26,815.

This was the Commission's worst nightmare and the reason they were so unhappy with the MCC Committee's decision to stage these international friendlies at the MCG in the middle of an AFL season.

Of course there were mitigating circumstances. But the temptation to juxtapose these two events was difficult to resist.


Amid the hand-wringing and introspection in the following days, it was one sportswriter, The Age's Rohan Connolly, who identified what he felt was the nub of the AFL's problem.

It had little to do with the relative merits of each sport. It was down, Connolly felt, to something quite different: video games. Yep, the pastime of choice for today's console-wielding gamer generation. And it seems he has a point.

The hugely sophisticated and life-like video games which soccer is able to produce – from the likes of the FIFA series and Pro Evolution Soccer - are proving to be the most effective recruiting tool to sports-loving boys, and not a few girls, around the world.

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In pro sports these days, as any marketer will tell you, if you haven't got a decent digital offering for teen gamers, you haven't got much going for you at all.

Connolly wrote how his 13-year-old son was never much interested in the AFL – or soccer, for that matter – until being exposed to the FIFA series of video games. Almost in an instant, he was hooked.

The clever graphics, lifelike player movements, up-to-date player squads, realistic stadia and crowd roars combined with his son's teenage passion for video game. Suddenly the world game had one more serious convert.

“He is now a fully-fledged soccer obsessive, following not only Melbourne Victory, but teams in the EPL, La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga,” Connolly wrote. “He's started playing for a local soccer team and is loving every minute.”

“Gaming and electronic media are bywords to every child in the 21st century, and as an entrée to the "world game". It's an area in which the AFL, by virtue of its isolation in the sporting world, simply cannot compete.”

This is the story all over the world. Even Mr AFL himself, the omnipresent Eddie McGuire, the man who is the code's greatest spruiker, has been forced to re-examine some of his entrenched beliefs.

At a round-table discussion hosted by FoxSports in June, McGuire was one of four AFL club presidents who were asked to give their views on the indigenous game, and sport in Australia more broadly.

McGuire, the Collingwood president, was quick to touch on soccer's one great advantage over the local code: its appeal to his sons' generation via games such as FIFA and PES.

“FIFA and the PlayStation is as big a threat to AFL football as the game of soccer itself,” he said.

And so it is. The FIFA series, first developed in 1993, is a gaming phenomenon and doing more to enhance the popularity of soccer than any clever marketing campaign could ever hope to.

The latest title FIFA15 features more than 600 player gestures which replicate real-life, on-field situations.

Apart from improved graphics, this year's edition has the addition of new soccer legends in a “Concept Squad,” new stadium chants and songs, and all 20 English Premier League stadia, as requested by FIFA fans last year.

As well as the biggest European leagues, it also features players and teams from the major competitions in Brazil, Mexico, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and even Australia's fledgling A-League.

They've got the globe covered. FIFA gamers have now got the whole world in their hands.

Yet the AFL actually went to market with its own video game in 1991, two years before FIFA, launching a rather clunky and unsophisticated product called Aussie Rules Footy.

At the time, the AFL probably didn't fully grasp the importance of having a compelling video game as a means to engage with schoolchildren.

But now the AFL, and every big-time sport around the world, understands the impact of this digital revolution: it's game on.


Darren Birch, the AFL's general manager of commercial operations and marketing, is the man charged with, among other things, getting the AFL's digital offering right. He's the league's digital dreamweaver.

Birch says the league's research indicates that 70 per cent of children between five and 16 play, or have played, video games. It is now the third most popular activity behind watching television and playing some form of sport.

“Video games are critical in terms of engagement,” he told BlueNotes. “This generation has extraordinarily high expectations about their games – their authenticity and playability – so kids will pick up our sport, and be engaged in it, if we get the game right.”

He has seen first-hand the power of a compelling video game. With a mixture of dismay and disbelief, he watched how his 12-year-old daughter, whom he has never taken to an A-League match or sat down with to watch soccer on TV, became besotted with the FIFA15 game.

“She spends a period of time each day on it,” Birch says. “So our kids today have a much greater and broader choice with their digital entertainment, and other sports around the world understand this and they're attracting a new audience of kids with highly engaging, challenging and visually stimulating games.”

Birch faces a series of challenges that simply don't exist for his opposite numbers at FIFA, the NFL or NBA.

In no particular order, they are: the paltry size of the Australian market which means return on investment is always likely to be small; the difficulty in procuring the necessary finances (many millions of dollars) in the same small market to develop a whiz-bang AFL video game; and the fact that, of all elite sports, AFL would be the most difficult by far to build a game around.

It is a 360-degree proposition where players can kick in any direction, run in any direction, and be tackled from any direction.

With limited budgets and resources, the difficulty involved in writing successful code to cater for so many different variables for all 44 players is enormous – and partly explains why, so far, the AFL games have lacked that ring of authenticity.

So if a sophisticated, lifelike AFL game is simply an unrealistic goal, Birch said the league needed to be clever in coming up with other digital solutions. These might be games devised around footy stats, or a version of fantasy football, for example.

As evidenced by Connolly and his 13-year-old son and Birch and his 12-year-old daughter, this is the digital sports landscape that exists in 2015 – and one which the AFL's marketing gurus are trying hard to understand and navigate.

Birch said he would be lobbying hard for a slice of the revenue from the AFL's new broadcast rights deal, worth upwards of $A2.5 billion, when he next sits down with his bosses. Because it is apparent his sport can no longer survive simply by selling its great intrinsic qualities: a mix of balletic beauty, breathtaking courage and sublime skill.

There needs to be something else in the marketing package that appeals to the Gamer Generation.

“I'll be making a strong pitch, that's for sure,” Birch said. “It's vital we get this right: this is where our next generation of fans will be coming from – and we have to recognise that.”

Charles Happell is managing director of Happell Media.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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