New eMLS venture hopes to grow soccer's popularity, but its participants get something even more valuable

Eric Adelson
Gamers like Alan Ortega are signing with MLS clubs like the San Jose Earthquakes, and the league hopes it will help grow the popularity of the sport. (Photo courtesy of Eric Adelson)

When Alan Ortega told his mom he had signed with the San Jose Earthquakes, she didn’t really grasp it.

See, her son is not an elite athlete. He does not play soccer. He had never been to an MLS game. So … ?

“I know my mom still doesn’t understand it,” says Ortega, 24. “’Oh, I signed with the Quakes!’ She doesn’t get it.”

She can be forgiven if she needs an explainer. The MLS is starting a league for gamers, and Alan Ortega is one of its first 19 signees. He is officially an employee of the club. The native of Stockton, Calif., was hosted at the Quakes’ opener this weekend.

“When I went to San Jose, they really made me feel like an athlete,” he says. “I observe how they act with the players and with me. When you get that treatment you really feel like an athlete.”

It’s not a gimmick. MLS in-house research finds that more of its avid fans point to FIFA video games as a driver of their interest than playing the actual sport. So setting up an e-league might actually work as well or better than growing soccer in a more traditional way.

“It’s a way to get people to understand the game, the players, the club,” says James Ruth, MLS senior director of properties and events. “It’s a master class in Soccer 101.”

Ideally for the league, cheering for Ortega will feed into cheering for the team he’s playing for and with: the Quakes.

Here’s how it will work: Each gamer will set up a team that must include at least three MLS players and two players from the club he represents. The rest of the players can be from clubs around the globe. Ruth calls it “fantasy football for video games.”

The “eMLS Cup” will be in Boston next month. Then the winner of that tournament will go on to an e-World Cup of sorts.

It’s easy for longtime soccer fans to scoff at this. Video games don’t have a sterling reputation in this country. Former president Barack Obama asked Congress in 2013 to set aside money to study the relationship between video games and violence, and current president Donald Trump is meeting with industry leaders this week in Washington after suggesting a link between video games and violence in the wake of another horrific school shooting.

“I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts,” he said.

Not many believe that FIFA abets destructive tendencies in youth, but there is certainly a strain of thought that gamers are tuning out human interaction (and reading) in favor of staring at a screen for hours on end. The idea that the MLS is actually encouraging its fans to watch strangers play games online might irk those who feel children don’t connect with each other the way they connect to a console.

But Alan Ortega’s story might change some minds on that.

Just as Chris Wondolowski (center) stars for the Quakes on the field, the franchise is hoping Alan Ortega will be a star on the e-pitch. (Sporting News)

He began his video game life like most kids do: playing Pokemon and FIFA. He did it because he enjoyed it and wanted to pass the time. As he got into his teen years, he became more competitive. But by then there were other things going on in his life.

His older brother, Diego, lost the use of one of his kidneys. There wasn’t a lot of money in the house, as his mother, Guadalupe, was a baker and didn’t have a great deal of income. There was constant stress, and they all felt it.

“When I first started playing competitively, I was going through anxiety,” he says. “I didn’t like being alone.”

He used Twitch, which is a bit like YouTube for gamers. There are channels hosted by players and there are opportunities to watch and interact. For Alan it started as a way to get better at FIFA. Then it evolved into something more.

“A lot of people use Twitch as a way to escape or cope with things,” he says. “There are messages back and forth, or people saying, ‘Hey I’m having a bad day.’ I can tune in and forget about everything.”

His anxiety wasn’t minor, either. He calls it “a full blown, sweaty hands, cotton mouth, didn’t feel in touch with reality” anxiety. At one point, Alan’s father fell ill and for a time, the family faced eviction. He says they became homeless for a period. When he eventually became good enough to host his own channel last year, he wanted to make sure visitors had an outlet for their own troubles.

“They can escape their problems,” he says. “That was and still is my main priority – making sure everyone is having a good time. I try to provide some entertainment to someone; I know someone can be going through some things. I can give them a sense of comfort. They can be themselves in that chat.”

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Alan’s online identity, CaliSCG, became quite popular – especially after he won a silver medal in the FIFA Twitch Cup – and he amassed nearly 40,000 followers. He hasn’t stopped there. He’s done charity events online, including one for Make-A-Wish. He recently held a marathon FIFA session and raised $4,000 for kids in need.

He’s found with his online celebrity that more young people on his stream are hoping for a personal connection than he realized. He estimates that most of his followers are in that group. The onset of depression in men often hits in the late teenage years. So instead of using video games to detach from humanity, he feels younger people are relying on them to reattach.

“A lot of people, you’d be surprised, watch because they’re going through something,” he says. “Almost anyone going to video games is doing it to get away from their problems.”

So while the league reached out to Ortega as a way to build its brand and fan base, Alan wants a deeper bond with other gamers – even if it’s only for a short time. He carries with him the desperate times of family illness and near-destitution.

“We got a month to clear out the house,” he remembers. “We were getting rid of anything, going through memories. I was still trying to grow my audience and platform. I knew I could show people, whatever you’re going through, I wanted to be that example.”

Alan’s mom may not understand much about eSports, but she can truly understand that.