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We talk with 1. FC Köln about their partnership with SK Gaming

Including the origins of the partnership, what it's bringing, and more.

  • Text: Sam Bishop

Early in February we reported that Germany football club 1. FC Köln had entered a strategic partnership with German esports organisation SK Gaming, meaning that both sides would help one another moving forward and that two FIFA players would compete in the virtual Bundesliga representing Köln as well, so when we recently caught up with 1. FC Köln's Philipp Liesenfeld - who is responsible for Business Development and Internationalisation - we talked about how this partnership emerged, and how both sides will help one another.

How did the partnership with SK Gaming come about?

It was kind of a long journey for us. We met Alex Müller, the founder and CEO of SK Gaming at an event here in Cologne, and after we spoke to him we had several meetings just to get an idea what the goals are for SK and how they try to leverage their efforts in terms of industry development in general. Of course for a professional football club in Germany the top esports are pretty important right now due to digitisation and so on. There are a lot of partnerships or at least engagements from other clubs, as you know, and we wanted to try and find a way which fits perfectly to our club.

So it took a year. We discussed it a lot. We thought about possible corporation parts and decided to do a strategic partnership where both brands have their content but are able to integrate their own goals, and that's how we found each other and that's how we came up with the partnership.

How are you helping SK and how are SK helping you?

So in terms of professionalisation, the esports industry has evolved and developed pretty fast, and the football business in Germany, from financial and professional perspectives, is pretty professional, and of course we are ahead of the esports industry in terms of marketing, sponsorships, organisation, and structe, so SK said it's very interesting for them to learn how we develop things, how we are structured and organised, how we are able to manage players.

Of course as a professional football club we will give them insights into fitness, training, and nutrition for professional athletes, and we wanted to help them - from the player perspective - to leverage their effort in terms of health, fitness, and lifestyle, because SK - in the top tournaments or in the semi finals, finals - will have to find the top three to four percent that leads them to the win. We think that this could be part of focus and concentration, and we want to help them with these kinds of things.

So this is the main part from our side. We will have different meetings here when the CS:GO team is here in Germany preparing for the major events, and we'll have some sort of a bootcamp for them with our medical staff behind it and our fitness coaches. We have the Sporthochschule in Cologne here too, which offer some medical perspectives, and they are doing some research into the esports athlete, so how an esport athlete trains. They do research with eye tracking when they're playing, and we want to try to understand how a professional esport athlete should live, work, train, and be aware of their body to be the perfect athlete.

This is our side, and SK will provide us with information all around the esport industry, because we see this partnership as one first step for us into the esport community. You probably might know that Cologne is a pretty interesting spot for the esports industry - we have Turtle Entertainment, the Lanxess Arena with ESL One Cologne, Gamescom, and EA Sports - so this is pretty much an interesting melting pot here with interesting players, and we want to understand more how the regional football clubs, the professional football clubs, can participate in this whole industry. So it's the point of converting, where Alex and SK will help us understand how it will work for the future as well.

And then of course we have the big events. We will be part of their ESL One Cologne activation, and we've been talking with the Gamescom organisers about how our partnership will be presented at the fair in August. So we have two major events where we want to produce great content for our community and for the SK community all around ESL One Cologne and Gamescom.

And as a third part we will organise a business event together once a year where we bring together our network from our football club and the network from SK to talk about industry development, our partnership, and our goals, bringing together interesting people from both industries.

The partnership is also all about creating good content, and getting in touch with the football community and the esports community. Next week the virtual Bundesliga will start, where two players, two FIFA players from SK, will play for our club, and we will create great content all around it. We will meet players, and we'll try to create some special content for our fans and for the SK fans, so of course communication is a very important part of the partnership.

With these FIFA players, was it always important for you as a traditional football team to make moves into FIFA's esports scene?

Yes. At the beginning it was clear for us that we do not want to make the safe and obvious move to just sign two FIFA players and create content with them. So actually the FIFA players are signed with SK Gaming and not with our club, but the partnership just helps us that those two players, which are great, will participate in this competition for our club.

And of course all around this tournament the content for our club is easier to communicate than it is with, for example, Counter-Strike, but we decided not to hide the Counter-Strike topic in terms of our partnership. We want to help our stakeholders, to help the community understand Counter-Strike (which is mostly a German discussion, since it's mainstream in other countries) and we want to help SK come more into the mainstream, to talk about players, about why Counter-Strike is so interesting for young target groups. When we do talk to the target groups in their environment, then of course we as a traditional football club will learn how the millennials think, and how they want to be part of a brand and consume content.

This is why I think this partnership is so individual, as we can talk and help each other. That's why we framed it as a strategical partnership for our digital transformation, as it's very important we have their community we can talk to. So FIFA plays a role for us, yeah. It's great content and it's easy for us to create good content all around FIFA, but it's clear for us that Counter-Strike and all the other esport games are right now more engaging than FIFA is, or they are bigger in the esports community than FIFA, so we will definitely go for all of the games that SK Gaming is in. So FIFA is one part of it, but we do not want to hide the Counter-Strike topic at all.

What else will you do in esports in the future?

As I said, Schalke and Paris Saint-Germain decided to do major investments and create their own department for that topic, which is a good way for their brands, but we are of course financially not in the situation that Schalke and Paris is. We think both ways are good, but we wanted to learn as part of the first step, and we do not want to make mistakes in our investment strategy, so we decided that SK would be the perfect partner to learn, to get some experience. Who are the players? What's possible? What future business is there for us? And how is the right way for FC Cologne to participate in this whole ecosystem? And I think that's why the partnership is perfect for our brand.

Photo: 1. FC Köln