The New York Red Bulls are utilizing content creators and players in the eMLS in a way that no other team has done before. Whereas most teams in MLS’s competitive gaming league have one player dedicated to competition and occasional content creation, the Red Bulls have two: Mike LaBelle, a content creator with over 275,000 YouTube subscribers and 81,000 Twitch followers who commentates FIFA games, hosts tournaments and sometimes competes in events; and George Adamou, who’s considered to be one of the best FIFA players in the world and is coming off of an eMLS Cup championship.
Adamou is focused on his professional play in tournaments, while LaBelle dabbles in eMLS match previews, brand collaborations and more. The combination of the two gamers has helped the Red Bulls grow in unexpected ways. Last weekend the Red Bulls hosted their first FIFA tournament of the year, and new fans comprised 74% of the registrants for the competition, the club’s second-highest new fan share ever.
“There’s a continued way to engage the community here,” said Jayne Bussman-Wise, senior director of content and communications for the Red Bulls. “There’s a lot of different content opportunities here.”
Bussman-Wise has been instrumental in helping steer the Red Bulls in the right direction when things got off to a rocky start competitively. LaBelle was the first player New York signed when the league launched in 2018, and while he was producing content that his team loved in his first two seasons, he finished at the bottom of the eMLS rankings.
As much as the club wanted to win, it also wanted to keep LaBelle on board because of his unique ability to create content that attracted people. With his assistance, the Red Bulls looked elsewhere for another player who could take the reins from LaBelle so that he could focus on other projects to help the brand grow. In 2019, they found Adamou, a talented player who hit the ground running, winning the eMLS championship earlier this year.
Bussman-Wise also credits the team’s ownership, Red Bull (the energy drink company which the team is named after), for enabling it to grow at a speedy pace. Whereas other clubs have to persuade owners to invest more into the eMLS, according to the executive, Red Bull has provided a multitude of resources for its club. New York has even used athletes and esports athletes that are sponsored by the brand.
During a media tour last year, Red Bull-sponsored Formula 1 driver Max Verstappen competed against LaBelle during a webseries wherein the two drove a virtual car simulator, faced each other in FIFA 19. And popular gamer/streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins joined the Red Bulls during their 2020 MLS jersey launch campaign, which provided a lift to the team’s brand, as jerseys and merchandise sales rose 183% from the previous year.
With EA Sports’ FIFA franchise being among the world’s most popular video games, esports has been an area of emphasis for soccer leagues because of its ability to help clubs connect with fans and young gamers around the world. Esports has been so successful for the Red Bulls that they are looking into starting an esports academy that would include a roster full of gamers that would be able to learn from the likes of LaBelle and Adamou. “I see kids asking Mike and George, ‘How do I become a pro?’” said Bussman-Wise. “We’ve had a lot of success in our youth development system, it makes so much sense to look at the success we’ve had there and figure out how to transcend that into the gaming space.”