DFL wants Virtual Bundesliga to be seen as its third competition brand

  • Innovative esports property founded in 2012 now has over 130,000 participants  
  • VBL Club Championship enters second season with 22 Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga teams
  • Deal with ProSiebenSat.1 means games shown on linear TV in Germany, as well as digitally

The Virtual Bundesliga (VBL), the esports property formed in partnership between the German Football League (DFL) and video game publisher EA Sports, is seen as a valuable tool with which to engage a younger fanbase and expand the reach of the Bundesliga and its commercial partners.

So much so that DFL executives want the VBL to be viewed as its third competition brand, alongside the Bundesliga and second-tier 2. Bundesliga.

In 2012, the Bundesliga became the first professional soccer league to launch its own esports competition when it launched the VBL, which is integrated directly into EA Sports’ FIFA game series. It now has around 130,000 participants.

Looking to expand the property’s reach, the Bundesliga created the VBL Club Championship last season, which encompasses squads of two-to-four esports players from 22 clubs across the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga competing each other in a season-long competition.

Each match is played in a ‘Davis Cup’ format: two games are played in one-on-one mode, one on the PlayStation 4 and one on the Xbox One; while the third game is played in two-on-two mode on the console of the home club’s choice. Players from the top six clubs in the table qualify directly for the VBL Grand Final, which last season was held in front of a live audience at the Westhafen Event and Convention Center in Berlin on May 11-12 and was won by SV Werder Bremen.

Following a partnership with German media company ProSiebenSat.1, fans can watch select games on linear television on free-to-air channel ProSieben Maxx and all games digitally on esports.com and virtual.bundesliga.com, an arrangement which will continue this season.

For the first time, this season’s championship will feature a fixed schedule for matchdays and times. Until the end of 2019, the matches will be played on Mondays and Thursdays. After the winter break, the VBL Club Championship will take place on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

The VBL is also helping the league expand its reach globally. On March 30-31, international series events took place in Malaysia and India, which were qualifying events for the VBL International Final, which was held in conjunction with the VBL Grand Final in Berlin. The events – which could be viewed in Asia on local broadcast partner Fox Sports and streaming platform eGG Network – followed successful Bundesliga eFootball competitions held in Chile and Malaysia in 2018.

Andreas Heyden, the chief executive of DFL Digital Sports and DFL executive vice president of digital innovations, spoke to SportBusiness about the growth of the VBL and its plans for the future.

Q. How important is the VBL to the growth of the Bundesliga brand?
Heyden: It is massively important. The growth of the Virtual Bundesliga since its inception shows how seriously we are taking the whole area of esports. We highly benefit from our club brands and players [being present] but also we have proven to have created one of the highest degrees of authenticity of the Bundesliga in the virtual world of stadiums, clubs and players.

Q. How has the VBL benefited from being a part of the DFL infrastructure?
H: We have a lot of resources from our value chain that we own which differentiates us from other [esports] leagues. We have our own data-gathering company, with Sportec Solutions, we have our own TV production company with Sportcast, we have our own digital content powerhouse with DFL Digital Sports, and we have our own Bundesliga International sales entity. We also have the governing body, the DFL, to fall back on. This benefits the Virtual Bundesliga to create better content in a league which is quite unique as it is financially sound and well-managed.

Q. How many Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga clubs will take part this year?
H: This year in the club championship we have 22 of our 36 clubs participating. We are not obligating clubs to participate in it. We believe that our clubs have a high degree of autonomy. I’d rather take a fully-committed club and accept that we may have fewer clubs participating than any club that is forced to participate. For us, it is about quality, not quantity.

Q. Is the aim to get every Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga club taking part?
H: I would love to see that. The way that we have been approaching that challenge of creating a new league, we are not putting ourselves in a position which we over-promise or tell a story that is bigger than it really is. We are in the beginning, we see the demand of the young target audience, but we are taking time to develop the league properly. There are lot of areas, which need to be defined in new ways: how do we market rights? How do we develop this whole system economically? Where is the commercial upside for the clubs? We are also learning how to develop a media product that is compelling to watch. Yes, there is a certain target group that want to see games on Twitch but there is also a group that want to see games on the big screen, on television. We want to have fully committed clubs who are going with us on this journey to explore where we are going. I am thankful that we are able to build this way, without any pressure from the league or the clubs, or EA Sports.

Q. In what ways is the audience for the VBL different from that of the Bundesliga?
H: From our surveys, we see a large overlap of fans of the Bundesliga and the Virtual Bundesliga. The Virtual Bundesliga audience is more tech-driven, younger, more millennial and Gen-Z population but now we are taking the product to a broader base with our TV partner ProSiebenSat.1 to make it really appealing to the key TV target group aged 14-49.

Q. What makes you sure there is a linear TV audience for the VBL?
H: We had a total TV audience of three million last season. For single events we had 140,000 people watching, which is for a niche [property] a great number. But also we learned a lot how to create the TV format: we adjusted the time slot and the TV concept. If fans want to watch it digitally or on TV or just watch highlights, you can. We will see what feedback we will get this season and look to understand if the product we are delivering is something that fans watch and value.

Q. What is the international outreach?
H: We do some exhibition matches as part of the Virtual Bundesliga international series, which we look to work with our TV partners and brands to put on the events. We have to keep this going as it is a good anchor point for people to get in touch with the Bundesliga as there will be a significant number of people internationally who only know the Bundesliga through FIFA [games] and not through TV.

Q. What opportunities are there for league and club partners to integrate into the property?
H: On a league product level, there is standard integration like title sponsoring and integration of media. Then you have integration into the TV product, that is done by the broadcaster. As we try to to achieve the highest degree of authenticity, the club sponsors are integrated into the game.

Q. How popular are VBL events the Bundesliga put on in terms of attendances?
H: At the moment we only have one public event [in Germany] with guests, which is the grand finale. We are not yet looking for a studio audience as we feel that this product is more done for TV than for a live audience to enjoy it. Will we have an audience in a TV show? Maybe, it could be good. But I don’t have pressure to grow this into a real-life audience yet as we are still in a growing phase.

Q. What are your future plans with the property – how else can it grow?
H: We want to grow the Virtual Bundesliga to become our third competition brand, alongside the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga in regards to media rights, participation of clubs and users in the open series. There are not many leagues who as are committed as we are to create an eFootball league, with the amount of focus we are giving and the investment we are providing. We try to control to the Bundesliga from the glass of the camera and the glass of the TV or phone of the user and the steps we are taking with the Bundesliga apply to the Virtual Bundesliga.

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