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‘Our esports can be bigger than the club’: How gaming is leading Wolves’ charge in China and beyond

A multifaceted brand building approach has helped grow Wolverhampton Wanderers’ fanbase exponentially. Russell Jones, the club’s general manager for marketing and commercial growth, tells SportsPro how gaming is at the centre of the Premier League side's plans for global expansion.

by Ed Dixon
‘Our esports can be bigger than the club’: How gaming is leading Wolves’ charge in China and beyond

For many soccer fans, the return of the Premier League on 17th June was the clearest sign yet that the world was returning to normal, or something close to resembling it at the very least.

Despite empty stadiums, artificial crowd noise and social distancing, the beautiful game was back, as broadcasters were quick to remind us.

For Wolverhampton Wanderers, a late surge towards the Uefa Champions League was back on after defeating West Ham United 2-0 at the London Stadium on their return to action. But that is not to say the prior lockdown had been a quiet one for the Midlands club. 

Since being acquired by Chinese investment group Fosun International in July 2016, the ambitious owners have helped take the team from the English third tier to the cusp of European soccer’s top club competition, as well as taking the Wolves brand into markets untapped by their previous owners. It is a pathway even the coronavirus pandemic has been unable to halt.

A central pillar of Wolves’ brand building is esports. While the decimation of the sporting calendar has seen competitive gaming garner mainstream attention over the last three months, with rights holders and broadcasters quick to jump on the bandwagon, Wolves’ approach has been rather more considered.

Rather than sticking to competitions such as the ePremierLeague Invitational – played on EA Sports’ FIFA title and won by Wolves forward Diogo Jota – the club have branched out in order to best tap the esports market.

In March, just as the global health crisis had suspended English soccer’s top flight, Wolves launched their very own esports tournament portal, enabling users to take part in online gaming events across a string of titles. New ground was then broken with the club’s first ever Fortnite tournaments – a game with 350 million registered players – in addition to partnering with the Gulf Racing team for the virtual 24 hours of Le Mans and joining the Identity V League, which sees them represented in the Call of the Abyss competition.

Looking at the numbers, Le Mans’ virtual race had a cumulative TV and digital audience of 63 million, while Identity V League boasts more than 180 million players. Enticing figures for any ambitious sports team looking for a global brand boost.

“It's always a funny thing to talk about brands when you talk about football clubs because, rightly, fans will not consider themselves part of a brand, they'll consider themselves part of a community,” Russell Jones, Wolves’ general manager for marketing and commercial growth, tells SportsPro.

“But brand from our perspective almost sits above. If you look at brand architecture, you have the brand at the top and then a series of pillars and the football club would be one pillar and clearly the most important pillar.

“We also recognise that having a brand architecture framed in that way allows us to build other pillars. One of those is clearly esports. We do see that, at some point, as a completely separate business with its own fanbase.”

Wolves partnered with Gulf Racing for the virtual 24 hours of Le Mans race

Eager to lay some firm foundations, Wolves made their first foray into esports via FIFA, which Jones says provided ample opportunity “to reach a different demographic”. That involved signing Brazilian gamers Flávio Brito and Ébio Bernardes – neither of whom had a passport before joining the club – with Brito becoming the first Brazil player to represent a Premier League team in esports.

Taking two young men from humble beginnings and catapulting them onto the global gaming stage via competitions such as the FIFA eWorld Cup is a story in itself. But couple that with Wolves being the only Premier League side to qualify for a tournament broadcast in six languages to 140 million viewers in 75 countries – as well as engaging with the soccer-mad Brazilian market – then you start to get an idea just how integral esports is to the club’s growth plans.

“First and foremost, we looked at the market opportunities,” says Jones. “There are 2.6 billion gamers now.

“This is not about teenagers in dark rooms playing games throughout the night anymore. 50 per cent of gamers are female, 47 per cent are parents. From our perspective, we saw that as a great opportunity to reach a new audience and also build a synergy with the Wolves brand eventually.

“If teams aren't thinking about gaming then they are going to be under threat because I don't think football clubs will be the [only] competition for each other moving for forward. I think it will be the gaming and esports industry.

“Wolves are very fortunate that they've got a chairman [Jeff Shi] that gets esports. He understands the opportunity within the industry and he genuinely believes, as do we as a football club, that our esports pillar can be bigger than the football club. Clearly, lockdown has magnified the industry as a whole but it never changed our strategy to build an esports programme.” 

Russell Jones (middle) with Ébio Bernardes and Flávio Brito, two of the club’s pro FIFA players

Unsurprisingly, given Wolves’ Chinese ties through their owners, the country has also been marked as a key target. In 2019, a Newzoo study projected China to generate esports revenues of US$210 million for that year. The likes of Manchester City – the first Premier League club to enter the Chinese competitive gaming market – along with Formula One and the National Basketball Association (NBA) are others also looking for a piece of the pie.

To that end, Wolves partnered with the Weibo Esports Club in February 2019, initially launching a team in the professional FIFA Online 4 Star League (FSL). The partnership later saw teams established for the Crazyracing KartRider title and then, in January this year, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG).

“Esports and gaming just generally is massive there, so we have an esports China operation,” says Jones of the club's gaming house in Ganzhou where their players live and compete. 

Wolves won this year’s FIFA Online 4 Champion Cup tournament

So far, the club have racked up half a million esports followers in the country across their official accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Twitch, Douyu, Weibo, WeChat and TikTok. Added to that, more than one million viewers in China regularly tune in to competitions such as the Kartrider League, where Wolves sat second at the time of writing.

“Right now, our target is a million followers across our entire esports programme, that's our focus,” continues Jones. “We work with a number of different partners both here and in China, and the idea of that now is for us to have a sustainable programme and provide other opportunities to young people to develop the esports programme.”

Jones, who joined Wolves from marketing agency Fan Hunters having also worked for Aston Villa, describes his current employers as a “challenger club” that are “going to dare to be different”. With that comes a specific way of doing things, but it also prompts a wider question for other brands wondering how best to corner such a large market like China.

Modern marketers consistently stress that the old method of slapping a company logo here, there and everywhere is no longer enough. Yet, finding alternative ways to maximise a partnership is another challenge in itself. Helping that dilemma, however, is esports’ potential for an expanded sponsorship inventory.

Wolves’ fanbase has grown 400 per cent over the last 18 months, says Jones

“As well as growing our fanbase, which is a key consideration, it also enables us to tell different commercial stories,” notes Jones.

“So when we are talking to potential partners who’ve got a certain amount of budget or they've got really interesting young gamers or they're interested in certain regions we can start pushing them in the direction of our esports programme, rather than potentially a first team sponsorship that might not be quite right for their brand at that time.

“It’s about trying to find partners that are going to add to the game itself. We talk about it and the industry talks about this idea of badging content and I don’t think any of us are really looking to do that. We're looking for a partner that is genuinely going to help our programme evolve and develop. 

“We are very open about the fact that we consider ourselves a challenger club. We might not always get it right but we're going to challenge. So when we're giving our positioning statement when we're talking to brands, we believe we are the challenger club for challenger brands.”

When you are doing well that's absolutely the time to start trying different things because your fans are much more forgiving.

That coaction also applies to Wolves’ own brand pillars. By allowing one to compliment the other, Jones believes it offers further opportunities to grow the club’s fanbase and revenue streams.

“We realised with fashion and esports that there is a lot of synergy,” he explains.  “A lot of our fashion range we will filter through our esports players. We're running a load of live WeChat broadcasts where you can buy esports fashion products from our WeChat store.

“We collaborate with a number of different high end designers and we were involved in Paris fashion week this year and we were involved with the Shanghai fashion show. We've got our fashion products available in 22 boutique stores throughout China.

“We're looking at a collaboration with a very well-known publisher, a very well-known game in the UK, which will probably launch around August to September. Again, there will be a fashion element to that and will allow our followers to be able to buy products that you'll see in the game when that collaboration launches.”   

The signing of Mexican Raúl Jiménez has prompted additional ways to get creative. Wolves held two FIFA activations in Mexico over the last month featuring the 29-year-old playing against Club América’s Giovanni Dos Santos and Inter Miami’s Rodolfo Pizarro. Both were televised on the TUDN sports channel and streamed to millions of fans.

Pushing the envelope further outside of gaming, Jiménez’s friendship with WWE wrestler Sin Cara saw the forward don a Wolves-inspired lucha libre mask (see below) after scoring in last year’s FA Cup semi-final. Though that fighting spirit could not prevent the club from slipping to a 3-2 defeat to Watford, it has helped produce other tangible results.

“Our fanbase has gone through a 400 per cent growth over the course of the last 18 months,” says Jones, who cites Jiménez as one of the biggest contributors.

“He's opened up the Mexican market to us, we've done an awful lot of campaigns in Mexico. We now have five times more followers in Mexico than we do in the UK.”

Wolves have been quick to pounce on marketing opportunities, with Raúl Jiménez’s popularity meaning the club now have five times more followers in Mexico than they do in the UK

The multi-layered and so far successful approach is unlikely to abate. When asked if Wolves will turn their attention to the top rung of esports titles – League of Legends, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike, among others – Jones says Wolves will remain patient, though hinted it may be a future possibility. 

“Buying into a franchise, particularly for Overwatch and League of Legends, is incredibly expensive," he says. "From the research that we've done, we're probably not quite ready to invest into those franchises. So, we'll look to invest into games where we feel we can be sustainable and continue to tell our brand stories. For us, right now, we're looking at Rocket League as a really interesting opportunity.” 

Wolves’ lofty aspirations come amid a forecast of financial uncertainty brought on by coronavirus. While teams will potentially have to temper their long-term plans in an effort to balance the books, Jones reckons his own club’s model can help continue their upward trajectory.

Wolves are in the hunt for a Champions League place, having played in the English third tier as recently as 2014

“The ambition is really strong," Jones begins, "but's it's ambition to do it in a different way compared to how the likes of Manchester City have done it. You can't just spend that money anymore, so it's a got to be a much more sustainable model. That's where the investment into these other pillars comes from. 

“If you have a really strong fashion business and a really strong esports business, for example, which actually are far less affected by on pitch performance, then as a brand you can still be really strong despite the roller coaster your football club might go on. 

“We're very daring as a club and we've managed to sell that narrative into our fans. When you are doing well that's absolutely the time to start trying different things because your fans are much more forgiving.”