Real Madrid are keeping the world of eSports at an arm's length, for now
Manchester City made a significant signing in October 2016. Eighteen-year-old Kieran Brown joined the Premier League club. Yet he will never play for Pep Guardiola, nor will he ever take to the pitch at the Etihad Stadium.
Brown is a professional FIFA video game player and a symbol of the spreading influence of eSports, an umbrella term for competitive video gaming, generally between professional players. As with traditional sports, fans support teams, favour individuals, and attend live events. It's lucrative, too. The global eSports economy will grow to $696 million in 2017, according to the consultancy Newzoo.
The signing of Brown formed part of a broader development of a symbiotic relationship between eSports and traditional sports.
In February 2017, the NBA announced the launch of the "NBA 2K eLeague," which will allow gamers to represent actual NBA teams throughout an 82-game season. One week after the NBA's announcement, the Eredivisie launched the E-Divisie, a similar competition for FIFA gamers in the Netherlands.
Ryan McCaffrey, an executive editor at the entertainment media company Image Games Network, explained the benefits that the NBA could derive from the venture.
"There are risks, but if this does work, this will pay off enormously," McCaffrey said. "Not necessarily for the financial in the short term, but more of the longevity and health of the NBA and brand with retaining that young audience. I think them tying the eLeague to the actual NBA teams is brilliant."
The same rationale applies to football clubs seeking to reconnect with -- and monetise -- younger fans who have drifted away from consuming football in a traditional way, and instead participate through eSports.
Alvaro Guinon, a journalist who covers eSports for Spanish newspaper Diario AS, does not think that Real Madrid have this particular problem.
"They're a really big club -- if not the biggest in terms of support and prestige -- and they have a lot of fans of all ages," he told ESPN.
Real Madrid do not currently have a presence in eSports, although rumours have circulated persistently. Two of the most prominent eSports players in Spain -- Werlyb and Falco -- left the Baskonia team in the summer and proceeded to pose for pictures on social media with Real Madrid shirts. Nothing materialised despite much bluster.
Real Madrid and La Liga have shown willingness to be creative in order to attract new supporters and revenue streams. The eagerly anticipated Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona on Saturday will kick off at lunchtime in Spain in order to begin at a convenient time for Asian viewers. The match will start at 17:30 in New Delhi, 19:00 in Jakarta, and 20:00 in Shanghai.
La Liga is acutely aware that it lags behind the Premier League in the battle for prominence in Asia, but eSports could provide a means to get ahead.
In April, La Liga hosted a forum with a panel of selected industry experts to discuss the "eSports phenomenon." The momentum is going in one direction as the digital revolution makes its mark on sport. And Spain is a leading European nation for eSports, to the extent that Vodafone recently launched a dedicated eSports television channel.
Nevertheless, Guinon believes Madrid should tread carefully.
"Some information came out a couple of weeks ago indicating that 50 percent of the figures in eSports come from investment," he said. "It illustrates how much is down to expectation and the risk that it could all burst and be a disastrous investment.
"Madrid have enormous prestige, and because of that they have to take their time when it comes to expansion."
Madrid already have a strong relationship with EA Sports and the FIFA series. They were one of four clubs (along with Manchester United, Bayern Munich, and Juventus) to release a digital fourth kit this month. With such a relationship in place, Madrid's most likely path into eSports will be through the FIFA games.
"I think it will come sooner rather than later," said Guinon.
Of note, FIFA recently announced a partnership with EA Sports to stage a "global series'' that will culminate in the FIFA eWorld Cup next summer. The world governing body announced on Thursday that it would be accepting bids for media rights to broadcast the competition. Competitive gaming is already being televised in the United Kingdom by major broadcasters such as the BBC, BT and Sky Sports, with the biggest audiences are online.
Nonetheless, the prospect of a Clasico contested on a console is unsettling for misty-eyed traditionalists. The assimilation of eSports alongside football represents, for some, an uncomfortable meeting of convention and innovation. The immediate reaction is to perhaps scoff at gathering around a screen to watch two individuals, quite literally, twiddle their thumbs.
But then again, 150 years ago, nascent football fans would have been challenged about the futility of watching 22 men kick a pig's bladder around a field. Perceptions change.
At the turn of the millennium, young Madrid fans pretended to be Ronaldo Nazario with a ball at their feet and his name on their back. Now, many young Madrid fans emulate Cristiano Ronaldo with a controller in their hand. Football fans are migrating to the virtual game, and it will be interesting to see how Real Madrid react over the next five years.
Matt McGinn is ESPN FC's Real Madrid blogger. Twitter: @McGinn93