MLB Announces an Esports League in China

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For several months, there was a rumor that Major League Baseball (MLB) had planned to make its first moves into the esports market with the launch of an MLB-branded esports league. The move was to follow a similar path to fellow major sports league set by the NBA, which has operated its esports league, NBA 2K League, for two years already. 

The speculation was only half right, though. MLB did indeed announce the launch of its first esports league in early July 2019, but it threw a major curveball when it declared that this league would be based, not in the United States, but China. At first glance, this may seem like a bit of an odd move as China does not have a significant baseball fan base, but one could argue that it gives MLB the best of both worlds.

Low-Risk Entry to the Chinese Market

As mentioned above, baseball is not too popular in China. It does have some followers, but the failed China Baseball League demonstrates how little interest there is in the country. The league launched in 2002 but suspended between 2012 and 2014 due to a lack of finances. It then ran another two seasons before being shut down in 2016, permanently. That demonstrates the financial risks of launching a full baseball league in the country, which MLB has decided are too big.

Instead, by launching an esports league, MLB can combine two elements that each have separate followings, spreading the appeal and reducing the risk. An esports baseball league will appeal to both fans of baseball and esports in general. The technology industry is popular in China, with huge markets selling many of the latest innovations, so MLB can tap into a larger market than going after baseball fans. 

Not MLB’s First Venture into China

Photo by Micah Sittig / CC BY 2.0

MLB has been to China before. In 2008, it hosted the MLB China Series, which consisted of two training games held during the spring. The games were between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres and took place intending to increase the interest in baseball within China. 

How Will the League Work?

Details on how the league will work are currently a little thin on the ground. MLB has announced that the esports games will take place in venues across seven different cities within China, including Beijing, Chongqing, Xi’an and Suzhou. The league will also follow a similar format to the main MLB in the U.S., with a regular-season that leads into a set of playoff games. The MLB esports playoffs will take place in Shanghai. 

As with the real-life MLB, the esports league is likely to be popular with fans looking to place wagers on the games. When the league launches, companies like Oddschecker, who compare odds from multiple providers, will likely begin listing the odds of esports teams. 

Raising Further Awareness

MLB intends to go all out for the new esports league. In a similar way to the MLB China Series, it will hold several MLB Experience events to help raise awareness of baseball and promote what it describes as “baseball culture.” 

MLB has also partnered with no fewer than eight different organizations heavily involved in esports. It’s all part of their initiative to attract fans of the esports industry, and not only baseball fans. Additionally, esports celebrities and Chinese social media platforms, including Sina Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter), will further “fuel excitement.” 

What Gaming Setups Will They Use?

Details of what baseball video game and what gaming hardware they will use have yet to release to the public. However, the players will likely use high specification, sponsored, gaming PCs. The NBA 2K League used gaming machines powered by top-of-the-range chipsets from their sponsor, Intel. 

Sponsorship Deals

While no details of sponsors have not yet released, MLB esports league will likely feature several big-name sponsors. If they follow a similar path as the NBA 2K League, MLB will likely partner with technology companies and manufacturers of gaming peripherals and accessories, such as gaming headsets, mice and keyboards. 

What About America?

Many had thought that MLB would likely launch their first esports league in the United States of America. However, one could argue that by launching it in China, it gives them the best of both worlds. America is home to most of the MLB fans, and therefore, launching in China will give them access to a rather immature market, as opposed to one that is at a relative plateau in the number of supporters. 

An esports league will also help to attract younger audiences, but thanks to the global reach of the internet, fans that live in the United States will still be able to stream the esports games. The fact that the games will take place in, and broadcast from, China makes little difference. 

Instead, being in China will help to bridge the gap between potential Chinese fans who see baseball as an American sport and can’t see a connection with their culture. China is a patriotic country, and therefore, making the league “Chinese” will likely increase its appeal in China, while not significantly affecting the appeal in the U.S. 

Overall, the announcement from MLB that its first venture into esports would be in China and not the U.S. was a little bit of a surprise. However, on closer examination, the idea is likely a shrewd move from MLB. It provides them with an opportunity to move into a large market with fewer risks and smaller investment while still maintaining an appeal to its traditional geographic market. Only time will tell whether the Chinese esports league will be a success, but with a seemingly sound business plan and significant resources behind them, MLB has at least as good of a chance as anyone else to succeed.