2020 has been a challenging year for the traditional sports world. Even though NFL games returned amid a pandemic, viewership was down during the first month of scheduled games and the league continues to see lower numbers as the season progresses. With the Super Bowl right around the corner, TV executives have concerns about viewership, but tapping into a younger gaming and esports audience could be a possible salve.
The NFL recently announced two moves aimed at further engaging the gaming demographic. The first is a deal with Madden NFL publisher Electronic Arts to host the upcoming 2021 Pro Bowl (presented by Verizon) as a virtual event within Madden NFL 21. With the help of EA Sports, the NFL will “create a week-long series of matchups featuring celebrities, NFL Legends, current players, and streamers playing as the official Pro Bowl rosters in Madden NFL 21.”
The second is an expanded partnership with Epic Games to include NFL content within both Fortnite and Rocket League. At the end of November, Fortnite’s in-game shop began offering new Gridiron Gang outfits with two styles to choose from and all 32 NFL teams represented. Players can select their jersey number and use a reflective helmet visor to complement the look. Additionally, Pysonix’s Rocket League, the popular car-meets-soccer esports title that shifted to free-to-play in September, will soon feature NFL themed content. The NFL believes that both integrations will “pave the way for future collaborations that will reach a global gaming audience.”
The traditional sports world and the esports industry have been on a collision course throughout the year, as more celebrity athletes invest in or even form their own esports clubs. For the NFL, it’s a smart move to target a younger gaming audience, as many of its own players are highly engaged in gaming and esports. Interpret’s New Media Measure® shows that about a fifth of NFL fans already watch esports. Additionally, more than a third of Fortnite and Rocket League players in the US regularly follow the NFL.