When football met eSports: PSG's tale of two sports at one club

Story highlights

  • PSG eSports established in October 2016
  • Gaming division is counterpart to club's football operation

(CNN)At Paris Saint-Germain's training ground, players are hard at work training for their big European competition in 2017.

But this isn't in the French capital, it's in Berlin. And the players won't be facing Barcelona in the Champions League, but will play the likes of Schalke 04 and Team LDLC in the European "League of Legends" Challenger Series where teams face off in the online battle arena video game. After all, this isn't a football side -- it's an eSports team.
PSG eSports is the electronic counterpart to France's most successful soccer side of recent years. It was established in October after former League of Legends competitor Team Huma was bought out for $70,000 and rebranded under PSG's name.
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The football club's Qatari owners have invested heavily since taking over in 2011, and that appears likely to be the case with its gaming venture.
"It represents a new way for Paris Saint-Germain to engage with its fans and to attract new ones in key development markets. We have big plans for the next three years," president Nasser Al-Khelaifi said of the eSports launch.
Next year the team will compete in the EU CS -- the second tier of European League of Legends -- and will be managed by one of eSports' most famous faces: Bora "YellOwStaR" Kim, formerly of Team SoloMid and Fnatic.
Kim retired from playing professional eSports in October at the age of 24 to take up the role. He says there's been close interaction between the two teams -- PSG's Brazil midfielder Lucas Moura took part in the the official launch video for the eSports franchise.
"We got to see (the football team) practicing on the field," Kim told CNN. "It was really nice that we could talk to them, so we can see the similarities or the differences between sports and eSports -- how they train, how they live.
"A lot of things are similar, but also different. Both teams are very competitive. Beside the physical part, we practice a lot, we have a lot of training, we have a lot of focus. So basically we have to be like athletes in the way that we have a specific lifestyle."
PSG is following in the footsteps of clubs such as Valencia, Manchester City and Ajax, which also have an eSports division.
In August "Agge" Rosenmeier and Lucas "DaXe" Cuillerier, the eSports team has two of the best exponents of the FIFA football video game. Rosenmeier is a two-time world champion on FIFA, while Cuillerier won this year's competition.
But, as Kim acknowledges, it's not enough for an eSports franchise to just specialize in FIFA, even if it carries the name of a football team.
"We see so many football clubs who are opening an eSports section for FIFA," he says, "but for me it is not really like being in eSports. I think if you really want to go into eSports you need to dig into several games."

The eSports Revolution

PSG's eSports move has caught the attention of France's media.
"eSports is very new, so in Europe, especially in France, we would like to reach a bigger audience and start building something," Kim says. "Every young person is interested in video games, in eSports; so many passionate people are following the scene.
"It's crazy, because from my perspective I've never seen so many newspapers being interested in eSports.
"And since PSG opened the eSports section so many people were really keen to discover what eSports was. This is awesome for the discipline to have such exposure."
It hasn't just kicked off in France. In South Korea, stadiums that once hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup are now frequently packed with eSports fans.
Between 2014 and 2016, the eSports global audience grew from 204 million to 292 million and it is predicted to potentially reach 427 million by 2019, according to data analytics service, Newzoo.
There are few sports with more passionate fans -- step into a professional competition and you'll find them raucously cheering on their button-pressing heroes.
It's a market PSG wants to explore, and Wednesday's announcement of its "League of Legends" lineup for the EU LCS should stoke the interest even higher.
Etienne "Steve" Michels, Hampus "Sprattel" Mikael Abrahamsson, Jin "Blanc" Sung-Min, Na "Pilot" Woo-Hyung and Thomas "Kirei" Yuen will be the first team to represent PSG on the European stage.
"This is the beginning of a fantastic adventure for the club, and these five players, of four different nationalities, who are today joining our ambitious project," said Kim.