Esports Pioneer

Preview image of “Esports Pioneer”
  • Marco Buljević
  • FC Schalke 04
Members of Schalke’s esports team

Marco Buljević has been in charge of esports at FC Schalke 04 since May 2022. Back in 2017, Marco worked in the club’s marketing department while studying to become a sports manager. He has held various positions at the club in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, since then. Before joining FC Schalke, Marco had a career as a professional basketball player and, in 2009, won the German championship as shooting guard with EWE Baskets Oldenburg.

Who participates in the esports ecosystem?
There are the game manufacturers who provide the platform so that leagues and competitions can take place. Then there are the profes-
sinal athletes who participate in competitions, of course. There are the organisations that create the teams, sign players and come up with the professional structures. Then we have the channels that broadcast the competitions. In esports there are streaming platforms such as Twitch. There’s also the gaming community, which regularly plays themselves and who follow the leagues and competitions. Finally, there are the companies that are visible in this market, who have the corresponding reach and who emerge as sponsors.

The global esports market has grown rapidly in recent years and it is currently estimated to be worth more than one billion US dollars. A thriv–ing esports ecosystem has developed in Germany with a growing number of professional teams and events. At the present time, the rapid development that occurred primarily during the pandemic is returning somewhat to normal.

FC Schalke 04 is one of the esports pioneers in the German football league. Why did the team get involved in this field in 2016?
It was to broaden the club’s horizons, think outside the box, and prepare for the future. There were also economic reasons behind joining, of course. As a general rule, it is wise to review new developments, classify them, and evaluate whether they might influence an organisation’s existing business model.

Society and the needs of young target groups are changing. At a time when attention spans are shrinking and the alternative forms of entertainment are becoming more diverse, it would be fatal to believe that nothing will ever change for football clubs.

With this change in the interests of their target group, the club decided to focus on the field of gaming/sports with an eye to the future, since this is relevant to young people. They were the first German club to do so and did this with FIFA and with a major, globally popular game, the League of Legends. Thanks to significant subsequent success, Schalke 04 has created a use case that demonstrates how a classic and entirely football-focused brand can be transported into an environment where it initially feels it does not belong.

What does Schalkes esports strategy look like going forward?
We have now separated our focus into three pillars. Our main goal is to inspire people. Naturally, we achieve this primarily by winning competitions. We were so successful in both League of Legends and FIFA at the highest national levels in 2022 that, despite the harsh cuts we had to make the year before, we were represented at both the World and the European Championships. It was unexpected and sensational.

To this end, we are committed to being socially involved, particularly in the structurally weak region in and around Gelsenkirchen. “Schalke hilft!” (Schalke helps!) has fortunately already found an organisation internally that we can brilliantly support. We have some fantastic premises both in the VELTINS Arena and in our gaming house. We can use these to invite people and bring them together through gaming. We also have some well-known players in our ranks who visit these facilities.

Last but not least, we want to cultivate interaction with our fans. Over the last few years, we have managed to build up a unique community that has contributed significantly to our success story. The 180,000-  plus followers we have on our esport social media channels speaks for itself. Our fans can expect events at the VELTINS Arena, online and offline tournaments, beat-the-pros events and more. We recently played FIFA from the stands on the giant video cube in the stadium.

What do the managers of the traditional sports think of esports?
A lot has changed in recent years. Currently, 29 clubs from the 1st and 2nd Bundesliga take part in the virtual Bundesliga. Basketball and handball clubs also have esport teams. Professionally managed esports barely differ from classic sports in terms of organisation management and leadership. In both sectors, the structures and processes teams and their coaches use to professionally prepare for competitions are very similar.

Naturally, I understand an initial scepticism due to the societal acceptance not yet being where it should be, but perhaps there is also a personal aversion. The fact is that gaming and esports are unstoppable. As a father of two sons, this has been brought home to me in my personal life. As with everything in life, the key is to find the right balance.

How do you promote the next generation?
We deliberately scout young talents who have not yet proven themselves on the big stage. This allows us to counteract the fact that sporting success is becoming increasingly expensive.

It’s important for us to emphasise the importance of a sensible ­approach to gaming, whether that be at a scouting tournament, Members’ Cup or the Gaming & Sport Camp. At a camp, for example, our focus is on active exercise with our coaches from the Knappen Football School. That’s before we even get out the consoles and computers. At a previous scouting tournament for example, we signed Tim Latka, who is ­probably well-known by FIFA players nationwide.

What do new technological opportunities like VR and AR mean for esports?
VR and AR offer new opportunities for the development of esports ­experiences, including virtual training rooms and realistic game worlds. New concepts in esports are already making use of these technologies to create an even more immersive viewer experience. But VR and AR haven’t really caught on yet. I say this in view of the fact that no truly large title is using AR or VR yet. I suspect this will happen in the future however, including in League of Legends, where Schalke 04 is supported. One thing is clear to me regarding the metaverse – if this technology does catch on, gaming and consequently esports will be the first use cases.

Excerpt from Radar Sports magazine‘s interview with Marco Buljević, 3/23