Permanent partner teams and a format with more matches, therefore taking up a progressively larger swathe of the calendar? Why, the European Super League sounds a lot like our big leagues in Counter-Strike! It makes you wonder why the proposal was universally condemned across the football world.

What is the European Super League? (ESL, lol)

Normally, the sacking of Mourinho would be Monday’s biggest news story for fans of the beautiful game, but the emergence of a positively ugly plan has taken precedence in the sporting community. Twelve of the biggest European clubs are looking to break away to form their own international superleague as permanent founding members, with some table scraps offered in the form of a few qualifier spots. Does this concept sound familiar to you by any chance?

The European Super League – abbreviated as ESL, much to my endless amusement – is not a new idea per se, and the economic logic behind it should be familiar to esports fans as well. The biggest teams in the world want to establish their own competition where they are guaranteed to play each other on a regular basis – and to ensure that they can’t be relegated by virtue of being founders.

Twelve clubs (AC Milan, Arsenal, Atlético Madrid, Chelsea, Barcelona, Inter, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Tottenham) have announced themselves as founders so far with the idea of fifteen such entities alongside five qualifier teams each year. They would play out a double round robin bracket in two groups of ten in midweek matches, essentially guaranteeing heavyweight clashes at all times, instead of the Champions League’s more serene group stages which have the audacity to feature lesser-known sides which still get the occasional scalp.

The organizers aim to start the competition this August, and their hope is to continue competing in their domestic leagues but essentially ditching the Champions League for their own playground – which seems to be wishful thinking on their part. The fury of the fans and the commentariat has been remarkable so far, with players, managers and pundits past and present decrying the plot in terms way harsher than what you’d expect from your typical corporate TV broadcast.

Phrases like “civil war” and “a criminal act” were thrown around on live television, heads of various governments have already spoken out against the concept and the bigwigs of UEFA and FIFA have already reiterated their nuclear threat: participants would be expelled from their domestic leagues and the players who sign up for them won’t be allowed to play at the World Cup or the Euros.

Though there are way too many nuances to untangle if we wanted to make an in-depth comparison – previous wrangling with the Champions League format reform (rejoice, esports fans, looks like we’re getting Swiss instead of round robin, much to the dismay of most viewers) and the Project Restart power gram attempt in the UK, the differences in the roles of umbrella organizations of UEFA and FIFA versus an entity like Valve, the breadth and depth of the football pyramid versus the hodgepodge pile of esports orgs, the founding of the Premier League in 1992 and much more –, the foundational element at play is the same: the biggest corporate entities on the top have the same goal in the form of grabbing an ever-larger slice of the proverbial pie.

No, it’s the difference in reactions that seems so strange to me. Right now, the ESL Pro League basically functions along the lines of how the European Super League is meant to operate. Indeed, we’ve had our own fair share of outrages when it came to other attempts of soft- and not-so-soft-exclusivity in the circuit. What has changed with 2021?

Our brave new world

The promise of esports as a marketing device – and we’re not yet at the stage of maturity when we can consider it a self-sustaining entertainment product without endless venture capital investment or developer prop-up – is that anyone can make it if they are good enough. Though that hasn’t stopped certain developers from taking full control of their scene, there need to be pathways for talent to emerge.

Considering how the competitive CS is also predicated upon the idea of an open circuit and everyone having a chance – and indeed, Gambit and Heroic topping the charts right now highlights this even further, forged in the fire of competition and beating out the teams with guaranteed spots at these events –, the similarities are rather eerie to those who are, like yours truly, fans of both disciplines.

The mere suggestion that a team could get into the most prestigious international club competition based on their history rather than sporting merit is anathema to most fans, even to those who support the clubs in question. Softer variations on the theme are a different matter though, which is why you end up with four or five teams of the same league in a competition explicitly named after champions.

However, there is no centuries-old identity to lean back on, nor is there a real sense of history or a local connection, a generational connective issue or any such elements which made the ESL proposal (again, lol) so maddening to the average supporter. In esports, fans are loyal to the players rather than the teams, which makes the prospect of walled-off competitions more tenable to the average viewer.

In this concept, the talent will still rise to the top, albeit mostly in the form of players rather than teams. Looking at ring-fenced competitions across other esports like League serves as an important reminder that the product in this case is very different from the eyeballs served up for a football broadcast. This also greatly changes the incentives for the stakeholders involved.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that of all the bastardized attempts to make one’s own circuit – remember when BLAST wanted to host events comprised of teams which they all owned? –, the current implementation is the softest of them all. Again, as evidenced by Gambit and Heroic, there’s a narrow but viable pathway to the top. And perhaps at the end of the day, the fact that an esports fan doesn’t pony up the same way a football fan does year after year – definitely not as far as the broadcasts are concerned. This means the only party which can realistically be moved by viewer outrage is Valve, which is more than enough in the current state of play but isn’t exactly analogous with top- tier football.

As long as the money brought in by esports remains so small that it remains a loss leader or a marketing exercise, those arguments about the scene’s financial sustainability which ring so hollow in football may actually be accepted in our space in the long run – and this could indeed be the reason why last year’s league structures by ESL and BLAST were accepted by the community when their previous efforts at walling off the garden have failed. Who knows? Maybe it’s just the fifth stage of grief.