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Why Munster Rugby has partnered with an Irish esports team
Munster Rugby Gaming kick-off life in the Northern League of Legends Championships this month.

IT WAS OVER at a Munster Rugby fundraising dinner in New York in 2018 that Enda Lynch got a sense of just how big esports has become.

Lynch, who is Munster Rugby’s head of enterprise, met with some of the Big Apple’s major traditional sports franchises – the Mets, the Giants, the Nets and the Yankees – while he was visiting the city.

Esports came up in each of the conversations but particularly in his chat with the Mets. The Major League Baseball franchise had just bought an Overwatch team for $10 million and were in the process of sinking another $20 million into a Call of Duty team.

Lynch was intrigued and travelled home to Ireland to do more research.

esports-fortnite-world-cup-finals SIPA USA / PA Images Athur Ashe Stadium in New York during the Fortnite World Cup Finals last year. SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

Before we go any further, esports is the term given to professional video gaming in which individual players or teams compete against each other, often for big prize money.

Many different video games make up esports, with Lynch explaining that esports “is like the Olympics in that it’s a multitude of games”.

League of Legends, Call of Duty, FIFA, Overwatch, Dota, Fortnite, and Counter-Strike are among the most popular but there are many more.

20 months on from Lynch’s trip to New York, Munster have partnered with an Irish esports team previously known as Phelan Gaming team that is now called Munster Rugby Gaming.

Phelan Gaming have been one of Ireland’s most successful eSports teams in recent years and although they are not at a top global or even European level yet, Munster see potential.

There is certainly no big money involved in this deal, which is a licensing agreement that allows Munster Rugby Gaming team to use the province’s brand name to open a few more doors.

For Munster’s part, they get to dip their toe into something new and exciting.

“It allows us to get into that space and to understand it,” says Lynch.

League of Legends / YouTube

Munster Rugby Gaming compete in the League of Legends game, a multiplayer online battle arena game that has become one of the biggest esports since its professional tournaments were launched in 2011.

As with other esports, people tune in online to watch League of Legends competitions, mainly through the Twitch platform. Last year’s League of Legends World Championship had nearly as many viewers as football’s Champions League final, explains Lynch.

The 2024 Paris Olympics – as in the physical, real-life Olympics we watch every four years – will see esports introduced as a ‘demonstration sport’ – although this will not include shooter games and instead involve virtual versions of real-life sports.

The top professional teams in esports are run like the best pro clubs in rugby and other sports – analysts, nutritionists, psychologists, coaches, team managers, daily training, the works.

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As the Mets’ deals show, there is huge money in esports Stateside. The industry is worth around $1.4 billion and global investors include Paris Saint-Germain, West Ham United, Barcelona, Wolfsburg, NBA franchises, Jennifer Lopez, Shaquille O’Neal, DJ Steve Aoki, and global investment management firms.

Europe isn’t quite the same as the US just yet, but Lynch says the development of the global esports industry been “staggering”.

imago-20180729 Imago / PA Images Fans watching an eSports competition in Berlin in 2018. Imago / PA Images / PA Images

Munster see all of this and get excited about the possibilities. Crucially, the audience and participants in esports are young, the vast majority of them under 30, according to Lynch. Rugby’s TV audience is, on average, older than that. 

“We realised that this is where the young audience is,” he explains.

“We wanted to reach a younger audience because, ultimately, we want to make sure Munster Rugby reaches as wide an audience as possible.

“People might know who Munster are and see the odd game but we want them to become a little bit more attached to us, for our own future growth, the stability of the brand, for the club in the long-term, and for our sponsors to see that there are other opportunties to be part of Munster Rugby.

“Secondarily, there is a very long-term hope that by being in this space as it grows that there will be commercial opportunities and we will prepare ourselves for those.”

Some of Munster’s own rugby squad play the video games that have now spawned into esports and might even be keeping on eye on Munster Rugby Gaming over the coming months as they compete in the Northern League of Legends Championships.

Munster Rugby Gaming have just signed Nublar ‘Maxlore’ Sarafian as their new ‘jungler’. 23-year-old ‘Maxlore’ finished eighth in the 2017 League of Legends World Championships.

Munster-Rugby-Gaming-Team The Munster Gaming team..

Munster Rugby Gaming take on MnM Gaming in their first fixture of 10 in the Northern League of Legends Championships on 17 June, finishing with a clash against Tricked Esport in late July. 

In short, Munster hope that having their brand in this market will bring the province new interest from a young audience.

And longer-term, the aim is that Munster Rugby Gaming might turn into a powerhouse in the European and global game. That would naturally increase the commercial opportunities for Munster.

As head of enterprise, Lynch is tasked with finding ways for the province to create business opportunities that aren’t just about putting bums on seats in Thomond Park.

He is behind the High Performance Leadership Programme the province runs out of its training base in UL at a cost of €4,900 per person for a two-and-a-half day course and allows attendees to learn from Munster’s knowledge of “ambition, excellence and success,” as they spend time with current Munster players and management.

This venture into eSports is the latest initiative Lynch has driven and it’s certainly a whole new ball game.

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