The vicious slash of 2020 didn’t quite find the achilles tendon of esports, but even the largest event of the largest esport, League of Legends Worlds, moved with a visible limp; only the final between DAMWON and Suning hosted a live audience.
Without live events, sports just don’t have the same spirit.
eDivisie, the official Dutch FIFA league — as well as other major FIFA leagues — had their operations postponed as the first wave of lockdowns covered Europe, at the behest of publisher EA. The esports league is operated by the top Netherlands football league, the Eredivisie, and both leagues field teams from the same 18 clubs.
Heading up the eDivisie is Esports Project Manager Arnoud Schonis, who spoke with Esports Insider about adjusting to a digital league structure and the current state of esports in the Netherlands.
Esports in the Netherlands
Digitised football competition in the Netherlands has been popular through the eDivisie since 2017. The debut season was aired on Dutch television via FOX Sports, but after two seasons, the broadcast moved to the eDivisie’s official YouTube channel.
The 2020/21 eDivisie winter season concluded with an AFC Ajax victory early this January, enjoying record-breaking concurrent viewership for the completely digital event. But Schonis shared that despite surpassing last year’s peak concurrent viewership, the overall number of views are down on YouTube — currently 56,000 behind last year’s final.
Schonis attributed this decrease to the quality of locations and production ability the team had outside of a controlled studio environment. “Even though the numbers were really good, as soon as we can go back to a studio production, we will,” he said.
eDivisie sponsors, including Dutch telecom company KPN, fashion retailer H&M Netherlands, and insurance provider FBTO, were pleasantly surprised by the viewership considering the circumstances, Schonis shared. While none of these organisations have a direct connection to gaming — telecoms, clothing, and insurance companies have long sponsored mainstream sports.
“Many companies are holding back [from longer-term partnerships] because they first want to see what the results will be after a single year,” Schonis told Esports Insider. “Because it is still, for them at least, a new product and a risk to step in, signing multi-year deals is quite hard, even though ROI has been overwhelmingly positive for every single partner.”
The structure of the Eredivisie and eDivisie cohesion allows sponsors to associate with the 18 clubs and the Eredivisie league brand by partnering with the eDivisie at a lower price point, also enabling access to a younger audience. “This is one of the biggest [unique selling propositions] that we’re selling,” said Schonis.
Dutch pragmatism, applied to esports
FIFA is the darling of Dutch esports. While often left out of esports conversations among its neighbours, the eDivisie commands the greatest local viewership of all esports leagues in the Low Country.
He attributes this to the easy appeal of FIFA. “The eDivisie is mainstream. It’s understandable [for Dutch viewers]. If you want to explain to your grandpa what the eDivisie is, he will be able to understand that it is the Eredivisie — just digitally. And it’s football, everybody understands football.”
The Dutch are well known for their pragmatic culture, reflected in the bluntness of the language and communication. The Dutch story isn’t one of myths or fairy tales — it’s a matter of fact, of documented history.
“The Dutch can relate to things they understand more easily,“ Schonis explained, “than wanting to understand things that are quite far away from them. Where [other cultures] may really like the idea of stepping into new worlds and discovering fantastical stuff — I don’t think the Dutch really like that.”
The Netherlands’ second-tier traditional football league, the Keuken Kampioen Divisie, created a Rocket League competition attempting to nudge the needle of interest towards esports without a traditional sport counterpart. Schonis said the results have been quite positive, but they cannot yet be compared to the success of the eDivisie.
Will the Dutch take to other esports?
Last year, esports agency META kicked off the official and renewed Dutch and Belgian Leagues for League of Legends esports, featuring a few Benelux football clubs like RSC Anderlecht. Despite the growing attention to League partnerships, the target audience for League of Legends is so niche in the already slim slice of the Benelux esports market. “It just isn’t a Dutch product right now,” Schonis said. “Maybe in a few years, when esports is accepted more, this might change.”
Exhibiting the pragmatism the Dutch are known for, Schonis shared that outside of Dutch football club PSV, no other club has expressed interest in moving into new titles, and neither does the eDivisie. “It’s really hard to explain to the general public that as a football league you are stepping into a shooting game or a fantasy game at this point,” he said. “There’s no relation.”
But without any envelope pushing, the Dutch esports scene will likely only inch forward, while neighbours in each direction compete on the world stage in multiple titles. At the moment, the Benelux region cannot compete as a destination for esports audiences and investment.
The eDivisie carries the load of sponsor, audience and publisher attention for the Netherlands. Its cousin, F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix follows the same formula in offering a traditional-sport digital doppelgänger. But Dutch passion for these esports generally isn’t shared with the rest of the globe.
The Dutch market has consumed digitised traditional sports for entertainment for four years, and it doesn’t look like the menu is changing anytime soon. Esports titles in the country are by default broadcast in Dutch, clearly defining the target market for partners, and current investments in the industry are proportionate to the market size. Just as it should be, as the Dutch like it.
A famous phrase describing Dutch sensibilities translates to “be normal and you’ll be crazy enough.” For an onlooker, the normalcy of the most popular sport in the world as the country’s most popular esport does indeed seem crazy enough.
This may not be the ‘new normal’ we’ve been hearing about, but for now it is the Dutch normaal.