Major League Baseball (MLB) announced it would launch its first-ever venture into eSports in China. The plan is for the MLB to host a three month eSports tournament that will feature eight teams competing under the official U.S. title, MLB: The Show.
The tournament which was announced on the MLB’s Weibo account is set to launch later in 2019 and will take place in the following Chinese cities: Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Chongqing, and Xi’an.
“By appealing to a younger demographic with games that they enjoy, this will help increase the penetration of baseball into their lives,” stated Shao Yinxin, director of marketing and media for MLB China.
The decision for the MLB to finally follow the majority of other U.S. sports (NBA, NHL, and NFL) into gaming is quite significant. Previously, MLB had only offered Home Run Derby virtual reality tournaments as a part of both the Little League World Series and the All-Star Game.
“Strategically, we see esports has kind of been a weak spot for us,” stated MLB Commissioner, Rob Manfred. “It is a real priority for us going forward. It is tough to say more than this, but I’m pretty confident that in 2019 we will have a nice announcement in that space in terms of platform-based games.”
“The FIFA [EA Sports] game is so popular that it actually affected the way fandom developed in MLS as opposed to European soccer — really an interesting dynamic and one that you have to pay a lot of attention to.”
Furthermore, the new eSports venture is also part of a more significant push by the MLB to enter the rapidly growing Chinese sports marketplace. Last year the league was able to sign a multi-year deal with Tencent who will live stream 125 games to its PC, mobile and over-the-top (OTT) platforms.
“As MLB continues to expand the participation, viewing, and engagement of baseball in China, it is critical to partner with the best organizations in the country to form mutually beneficial co-operations,” stated Jim Small, MLB vice president, Asia Pacific.
“We are thrilled to team with Tencent, the largest and best distributor of digital sports content in China, and a company that is widely admired around the world. We are confident that the assortment of MLB games, shows, and events that Tencent will stream will entertain millions of sports fans in China and help continue to grow the sport.”
Additionally, back in December of 2017, the MLB partnered with Beijing Enterprises Real Estate Group in a development project that built 20 new baseball facilities designed to promote and grow the sport throughout the country.
“This relationship with BEREGL will seek to accelerate our growth and to provide first-rate facilities and coaching for the increasing number of Chinese baseball players,” stated Small. “We are honoured to team up with one of China’s most forward-thinking, innovative, and successful companies as we build momentum for baseball in the country.”
MLB’s push into eSports is a crucial factor in the growth of the game in China. On April 12th of this year, the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics added eSports to its national “2019 Sports Industry Statistics” which means it is now officially classified as a “professional sports performance event.”
According to The Drum, China is set to surpass the United States as the highest-earning eSports country during 2019 with expected earning set at more than $45 million. The report also highlighted additional Newzoo findings which reported that eSports viewership is also expected to reach 557 million by 2021 and brand investments (advertising and sponsorships) are expected to double from $694 million in 2018 to $1.39 billion in 2021.
Therefore harnessing the power of eSports is essential to the growth and development of the MLB in China. Only time will tell if baseball can make as much traction in the eSports marketplace as other U.S. sports.