One of the fast-growing sports on earth makes its long-awaited return this week, and to the delight of its rabid fanbase, games will be seen on the BBC.
No, we're not talking about the Premier League. We're talking the UK League Championship (UKLC) in League of Legends, one of the top esports leagues in these islands.
Visit the website of the teams in the UKLC and you'll spot a very familiar crest beside Barrage Gaming and Bulldog Esports: that of Munster Rugby. One of the more unexpected news releases to come from the lockdown was the announcement in April that Munster Rugby was venturing into the world of esports by launching a partnership with Irish esports team Phelan Gaming. The partnership sees Ireland's leading esports franchise renamed Munster Rugby Gaming.
— Munster Rugby Gaming (@MunsterRGaming) June 5, 2020
On the surface, it seems likely an unlikely marriage. Munster, at its core, is about all those old school, primal Irish sporting values like grit and courage and never saying die. League of Legends, which is played by 115 million people worldwide, feels a long ways from Thomond Park on a Saturday evening in December, with gael force five winds blowing in off the Shannon. But both Munster and Phelan founder Ciaran Walsh find there's a lot more in common between the two parties than might meet the eye.
The momentum behind esports is undeniable. Global esports revenue will exceed $1 billion this year, and in a lockdown world, gaming only grew more popular. Esports' popularity is also booming closer to home. Last week, the BBC announced it would be broadcasting the UKLC league on the iPlayer and on its website. The summer league - which involves some of the best League of Legends players in Europe competing head to head in London, kicked off Sunday and runs until 27 July.
It's a fascinating step in Munster's evolution. The partnership was driven on by Munster's head of enterprise Enda Lynch, whose job is to find new commercial frontiers for the province.
Lynch says the decision to get into esports came from watching American sports franchises making multi-million dollar investments into esports franchises.
We were constantly looking for ways that we could transfer our knowhow in rugby and transfer to other fields of business that were not related to on-pitch performance, or relying on on-pitch performance.
Professional sports teams, like broadcasters, are deeply aware that there's a generational chasm and digital natives are looking for something more in sports entertainment than a game played on a field every Sunday afternoon.
"All professional sports have roughly the same challenge. There’s an older audience engaged with those live professional sports. Look at the TV and attendance data, that’s the reality. For us there’s an awful lot of younger people who are somewhat engaged but they have other things that they are passionate about. Chief amongst them is gaming," he says.
While the likes of PSG and Celtic are active in the gaming space, Lynch believes Munster are the first rugby club in the Northern Hemisphere to venture into esports. Given the growing numbers of gamers is in this country - 80,000 people claim to play video games with some degree of regularity - a step into esports, especially with a Clareman like Walsh, perhaps isn't so surprising.
"I was a Munster rugby fan growing up. I have a photo of Paul O’Connell on my desk from when they won the Heineken Cup in 2006. Once I knew they had the same goals as us and the same driving points we had I knew this was something to do," Walsh says.
After launching in 2016, Walsh's League of Legends team quickly became one of the best in the country. His team now features five players, four coaches and an analyst. While we might be a long ways from hearing the Fields of Athenry belted out by fans at the UKLC finals in London, Walsh's team do wear kits emblazoned with the Munster crest and pride in the jersey is very strong.
There may be a perception in the jocky sports media that esports is a nerdy pastime for energy drink addicts, but the parallels between professional rugby and esports are more abundant than they may seem.
Walsh said the partnership with Munster offers his team huge benefits, both terms of inherited values and behind-the-scenes expertise:
"They have values that we ourselves wanted to implement into our team. For esports it’s not as simple as jumping on a game for a few hours. There's a lot of work that goes into it. Our players go through strength and conditioning training. They do mental rehearsals with our sports psychologists and they do strategic training with coaches."
Lynch echoes the sentiment.
"When covid passes, we’ll be able to bring them into the high performance centre. We know how to create high performing leaders on the pitch. We want to do the same thing off the pitch. The very best esports teams in the world have a structure that’s similar to professional sports teams, in terms of nutrition, performance, psychological performance and data analysis. We have been there and done that. There’s a natural affinity there. We share values and we share an approach for how we want to achieve things. And, like with the rugby team, you wear your values on your sleeve, you represent the jersey as best you can and you leave the place in a better place than it was in before you got it."
Lynch clearly aspired to work with an esports partner with a shared vision.
"A lot of their values are identical to our own. Gaming is not what people would have thought it was a few years ago, say the dark rooms and games played at night. It’s serious business. Ciaran wants to build a group of people around that. He’s very passionate about community. Those are our values."
After two fixtures, MRG find themselves 1-1 ahead of a match this evening against MnM Entertainment at 6pm. Many people charting the future of sport in this country will be watching the evolution of this partnership with great interest.