BOSTON -- The eMLS Cup's home base at PAX East was decorated in red, white and blue lights. Major League Soccer Jerseys dotted the walls while a small stage housing 20 sets of consoles, monitors and chairs sat in the back; competing on the stage playing FIFA 18 were men of various backgrounds and ages. A massive television screen bookended one side of the stage, which throughout the convention showed professional soccer matches and FIFA gameplay. On the other side of the room a set of PlayStations sat ready for fans to play.
White ottomans and couches gave the room a social vibe, not the competitive atmosphere of an esports event. Patrons and fans trickled in and out, but a majority of the crowd would bear witness to the event's playoff stage on the main floor.
Around that main floor at the Boston Convention Center, people shuffled from booth to booth in herds, making the exhibit hall nearly impassable. Part of that massive room was sectioned off to an arena where esports competitions for games like Hearthstone and NBA 2K take place. The set up was familiar for a convention: a mid-sized crowd, a big stage, professional commentators.
But the eMLS and FIFA 18 is undeniably different, an allusion of how its parent organizations, Major League Soccer and Electronic Arts, see their future in esports. The 19-team-and-player league is the latest addition to the esports industry and the fourth esports brand launched by a traditional sports league; NFL, NBA and NHL all have their own esports operations.
For the de facto professional soccer league in North America, it's an opportunity to push its brand into the future projected $1 billion esports industry.
"We are really looking forward to building our presence in the gaming space," MLS senior director of projects James Ruth told ESPN at PAX. "We wanted to hold our marquee event with the gaming community and really bring the MLS and the eMLS to gamers, rather than trying to ask them to come to us, so we thought PAX was a great avenue to go into it."
If it weren't for the monitors and setups in the eMLS room, the stage could double for a collection of MLS players. The individuals on stage sport jerseys that are, for most, identical to those of their clubs' on-field uniforms. For some teams, this is on purpose; several clubs told ESPN it's their hope to integrate their FIFA esports players directly into their club's atmosphere, while others are more determined to keep them separate.
Some players, for example, are salaried and compete year round for their clubs, such as the LA Galaxy's Giuseppe Guastella and the New York City FC's Christopher Holly, who was the first esports player signed by a MLS club. Others, however, are playing short term for their clubs and aren't earning salaries. The MLS said it's taking things slow and won't have salary or employment rules or relegations until it expands its esports plans in future years.
Four MLS clubs -- the Colorado Rapids, the LA Galaxy, the New England Revolution and the LAFC -- have owners who have invested in esports outside of FIFA. By comparison, the NBA contains 13 teams with external esports investments; the NHL has nine and the MLB has six. The majority of the 23-club MLS league, however, have never interacted with esports and the eMLS will be their first time.
"It's been great, because on both sides of the coin, we're getting a lot of excitement from the clubs and they're jumping in with both feet, which is fantastic," Ruth said. "We've gotten a couple of clubs who have asked [about other esports titles]. I think that's a club-by-club decision and obviously what makes sense for them."
Among the teams invested outside of the eMLS, the New England Revolution and its parent company, the Kraft Group, committed over $20 million, in addition to player salaries, housing and other expenses, to the Overwatch League in March 2017. For Revolution president Brian Bilello, who works on both the Overwatch League and the eMLS, they provides an interesting contrast.
"We obviously knew about the sporting side of esports, meaning Madden and FIFA, for a number of years given how popular those games are and how many players there are," Bilello said. "But there weren't direct links between these traditional sports teams and those, so our real first big foray into esports was the Overwatch League. That was just the recognition of how big esports is, how big it's growing and how you see these big sports organizations like ours wanting to be a piece of it.
"Now that we're getting ramped up on the eMLS, there are a ton of things we can learn from the Overwatch League and the more traditional esports to make this as successful as we can be."
Sports leagues are late to the game, as evident by their viewership numbers on Twitch and how those metrics stack up compared to other esports events. Last Wednesday the NBA 2K League draft had roughly 10,000 concurrent viewers online. The Overwatch League often averages 60,000-100,000 viewers (or more) on any given night, while the North American League of Legends Championship Series is almost always over 100,000 viewers.
The Overwatch League, a 12-team, city-based esports league, has quickly ascended as one of the most popular properties in the esports space. It's origins, however, lie in local pride, something it's learning from traditional sports like football and soccer, and companies like the Kraft Group and Kroenke Sports & Entertainment -- who also invest in the eMLS, through the Colorado Rapids, and the Overwatch League as the Los Angeles Gladiators.
The Kraft and Kroenke families were among the first to get the Overwatch League pitch at BlizzCon in Nov. 2016 and the Kraft Group became the first owner in the league in March 2017. Family head Robert Kraft and the Anschutz Corporation -- who formerly owned the Rapids, now the Galaxy and also invest in Overwatch League team, the Los Angeles Valiant -- were among the first 10 owners in the MLS.
"We're just getting started and we don't know where [the eMLS] is going," Bilello said. "We're having the one big tournament here but with the Overwatch League, I think they have a pretty defined scope of what they want."