Crows' Legacy taking shape away from the AFL

play
Get tipping on ESPNfootytips now! (0:30)

Gather your friends, round up your colleagues and join ESPNfootytips for another year of tipping fun. (0:30)

It all started with the word 'esports' written on a whiteboard.

Eighteen months ago, Adelaide Crows officials were in the process of identifying where the club would continue to grow, commercially and as a community looking to increase its 600,000-strong fan base.

On the field, healthy success was highlighted by the men's and women's teams making the AFL and AFLW grand finals. Off the field, the club's partnership and sponsorship team was maximising every opportunity, and the revenue from the AFL's broadcast deal was set for the foreseeable future. Continuing growth had to come from outside the traditional footballing landscape, where their options were almost exhausted. So began the investigation into esports.

"It was almost a forced decision for us as a football club, because we're in a unique situation where our traditional revenue streams are reaching capacity," Nigel Smart, a two-time premiership winner with the Crows and now the club's chief operating officer, tells ESPN.

"It's very hard to make any profitable outcomes in a sporting code and ... for a football club off-field we're performing quite well. That allowed us to get our eyes above the horizon and at least ask, 'While things are good as an entity in our men's and women's team, how are we going to grow and prosper in the future?'."

A consultation process followed to establish how the club could enter the burgeoning esports market, with 15 entry points identified ranging from soft PR initiatives to the acquisition of an esports team.

"We spoke to a lot of people in the industry just to get a feel for esports in Australia, and then we looked overseas as well in terms of the growth of esports in different markets," Smart says, noting that the Crows entered discussions with Manchester City and Philadelphia 76ers to understand how other professional sporting clubs had begun their journey into esports.

While Manchester City and the 76ers placed restrictions on themselves from pursuing esports opportunities outside their core football and basketball audience, Smart says the Crows essentially had a clean slate to work with. Enter, Legacy esports, a relatively new club formed in 2014 after splitting from its former team Avant Gaming.

"In the end that led to speaking to team owners, and we found a sweet spot in discussions with Tim Wendel [Legacy's Head of esports]. We did some due diligence through that process and ended up coming to an arrangement with Tim," Smart says of the 'arrangement' that enjoys its first anniversary in May this year.

The Crows' acquisition of Legacy marked the first time an Australian sporting organisation had bought an esports club, with Smart adding that Adelaide's research suggests they are one of "170-odd" sporting clubs globally to enter the space.

Legacy operates esports teams across a range of games including CS:GO, Starcraft II and Super Smash Brothers, with its flagship team competing in the hugely successful League of Legends (LoL) game.

Wendel just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the Crows came calling.

"It was actually just complete coincidence," Wendel tells ESPN of how the two clubs came together. "I'd met with a number of investors before I'd spoken to the Crows, but they had the best offer and it seemed like the best option and I saw a really bright future."

It was not lost on the lifelong Crows fan that he would actually fulfil a childhood dream of being part of the Adelaide organisation.

"On a personal level I remember the very first meeting I had with Nigel, who's now my boss. I was definitely a little bit star struck. I remember watching him in the grand finals in the 90s. It was pretty crazy for the first time and it's been pretty special for me so far."

Wendel says the support of the Crows means the Legacy team has access to better resources and more often -- overseas training boot camps, top-of-the-line equipment and eventually an esports-focused high-performance centre in Adelaide where the team can live and train on a daily basis -- to assist in its growth.

"I thought about all of the cool things, daydreaming in my head that I wish I had done that I could now provide to the next - I don't want to say generation because they're only five years younger than I am - but the 'next generation'," says Wendel.

Technically the team are contracted Crows players but they still compete under the Legacy branding in the LoL Oceanic Pro League (OPL), which began its fourth season in late January; the season continues through to mid-March.

For Legacy the esports year is divided into two 'splits' -- the first of which provides teams with the opportunity to win the OPL before being granted a shot at the Mid Season Invitational (MSI), at which esports clubs from every region internationally will converge to compete for the title. The second split of the year leads to the the LoL World Championships, where the prize pool can top $US4 million.

During the regular season splits, teams compete on a week-to-week basis from a studio in Sydney designed and managed by Riot Games, creators and publishers of League of Legends.

Matches are beamed across the globe via online streaming platforms such as Twitch, allowing millions of fans from all corners of the world to watch with relative ease.

The matches are often intense and packed with high-pressure moments, which means Legacy's esports athletes, just like their football counterparts, have to be at their top of their game every week to have a chance at progressing to the OPL grand final.

"I've always said, as far as the sports comparison goes, esports is pretty much the same thing bar the activity they're undertaking," Wendel says.

"All my players have to deal with the media. All my players have to deal with fans. They all review footage of themselves and other teams. They have set training hours. They watch what they eat. They're required to travel to play.

"In pretty much every category, or anything you would associate with a professional athlete, or 'regular' athlete, esports athletes are dealing with mostly the same thing beside the sport itself."

Esports and AFL might seem to be a world apart but Smart highlights the synergies between the club and Legacy, beginning at a grassroots level across both sports.

"We're a community club," Smart says. "We're out in schools. We're teaching kids how to play. We're encouraging them to go to clubs and participate, but also helping them along their journey.

"We'll do the same in esports. It's what we do as a football club and we plan to do it as an esports organisation as well. I think you'll see with Legacy we've got a team focus but also a community focus as well."

However, unlike the AFL, in which clubs are keen to hold onto their best talent to compete for the flag, Smart acknowledges that esports is only growing in Australia so there are greater opportunities for home-grown talent to move overseas to stronger leagues. In time, he says, that will only have a positive effect on the scene in Australia.

"Australia will be a talent centre for not only LoL, but other franchises including Overwatch in the future," Smart says.

"I think that there are opportunities for young Australian players to move from high-school tournaments right through to international opportunities, and if we're a facilitator as a community club then that's a great outcome for us," Smart says, citing examples such as New Zealand's Lawrence 'Lost' Hui, who went from one of Legacy's OPL rivals to the American LoL team Echo Fox.

Additionally, Smart says, the Crows' move into esports allows the club to tap into one of the most difficult markets to crack: A young, mostly male demographic that's extremely passionate about esports and sport in general.

"From our point of view as a sporting club, we're using esports as a platform of engagement with that group," Smart says. "They're incredibly hard to connect with. Most of them have a Netflix account. Most of them listen to Spotify and most of them don't consume traditional media. So we can use esports as that platform of engagement."

Daniel Ringland, Head of Oceanic esports at Riot Games -- the creators and publishers of League of Legends and the organisers of the OPL -- says the Crows' acquisition of Legacy and the wider trend of sports clubs entering the esports market not only helps to legitimise esports in the eyes of those who may not see it is a 'real sport' but also it is a natural fit for esports fans within the growing demographic.

Just as traditional sports fans discuss their team each week at work or the pub, esports fans do the same thing with their favourite League of Legends teams and players.

"From what [Riot Games] saw, the fans definitely thought [Adelaide's acquisition of Legacy] was a positive thing. And there was a lot of banter. I remember OPL fans who were also fans of other AFL teams saying, 'I can't wait until my team gets a team and can play against Adelaide in the OPL and AFL' - so they were excited about the possibilities there.

play
0:30

Get tipping on ESPNfootytips now!

Gather your friends, round up your colleagues and join ESPNfootytips for another year of tipping fun.

"There's a generation of kids now that have been following for years. They all have the jerseys and they get together and discuss the results each week. The more people you can add into that makes the social experience more rewarding than when it's just you and one other friend who likes esports.

"Now, more of you have esports and can get together and have a passionate debate. Tell him why his team sucks and your team's better, and all those sorts of experiences that [traditional] sports fans have had for a long time and take for granted."

Ringland also notes that the investors currently within the Australian market, including the Crows, are very much focused on increasing the size of the market for everyone involved, and that the collaborative effort is creating a positive and innovative environment.

Smart and the Crows have continued that trend since becoming the first Australian sports club to purchase a team, and they are keen to take a proactive approach into helping other clubs find success in the market.

"I think what you'll find is that we're actually a facilitator now of support and advice, and have supported and helped a number of other clubs with their entries into esports," Smart says, noting the Essendon Bombers followed the Crows into the market by acquiring Abyss esports in December 2017.

Smart agrees, however, that success -- commercially and competitively - is the bottom line, as in every sport.

"There's so much to learn and I don't think I'll ever get on top of it all. There are so many people doing innovative things in esports, different publishers and different ways people are consuming," Smart says.

"You can enter in the space and spend a lot of money and waste a lot of money. So from a perspective of our first year in esports - we want to be authentic, but we also want to approach it in a conservative manner.

"[Commercial success looks like] having the right partners on board and building the commercial framework around the club to sustain the club -- then investing that commercial success back into players, teams, coaches, analysts and building out a professional organisation. So we're actually performing and winning and growing our fan base."

As the 12-month anniversary as owners of Legacy draws closer, Smart is not shying away from what he wants the team to achieve from a competitive standpoint.

"It's a new roster. It's a young roster. I'm really excited about it because I've always been there to invest in young talent. I'm quietly confident our team will perform quite well this year, and bigger and brighter things in 2019. We're not quite there yet, but we have aspirations to be the best esports team in the country."