Last Saturday, at 3pm UK time, fourth-tier English soccer side Leyton Orient walked out at Valley Parade to take on Bradford City – only in reality they didn’t.
Like all elite professional soccer matches across the UK and indeed Europe, League Two fixtures are currently postponed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. So instead Orient’s media team took to a combination of Twitter and Football Manager, the soccer management simulation video game, to see how the match might have played out.
�� Here come the teams…
It's Bradford City v Leyton Orient at Valley Parade, in a distant world where Corona is still just a Mexican beer.
— Leyton Orient (@leytonorientfc) March 14, 2020
Orient’s followers were invited to vote on Twitter polls to determine everything from the team’s tactics and substitutions to the tone of the manager’s half-time team talk. Text updates of the action were provided over 90 minutes as they would be on a normal matchday, along with clips of key moments.
They lost 1-0.
“It was quite funny to give a bit of stick [to the fans] afterwards,” recalls Luke Lambourne, Orient’s media manager. “We saw some really good engagement with it so with that in the back of our minds we were thinking of new things to do.”
Orient fans, you're under intense scrutiny from the Orient fans, and many of them are calling for your head. What do you make of that?
Orient Fans: pic.twitter.com/HuZ6iju6B9
— Leyton Orient (@leytonorientfc) March 14, 2020
A few hours later top-flight German club Bayer 04 Leverkusen were challenged by a Twitter user to a game of virtual Connect Four. But when @MrScouse seemingly ignored the Bundesliga side’s first move, second-tier English outfit Hull City stepped in. Each play from then on was accompanied by a caption mimicking cliched soccer commentary to add to the tension. The ‘epic match’, as one follower described it, was soon picked up on by the Amazon Prime Video and Match of the Day Twitter accounts.
Clearly there’s a desire for clubs to interact with each other here, there’s obviously a desire from fans in terms of getting engaged as well.
The two clubs’ ‘full-time score’ tweets – Hull ran out 4-0 winners, in case you were wondering – have since accumulated more than 6,000 retweets and 35,000 likes combined. By the end of the evening it was impossible to scroll through your timeline without seeing soccer teams from every corner of the Twittersphere locked in battle over a game traditionally played by children.
Time for some international football…
— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) March 14, 2020
“The first couple of times I think it was interesting and then it just started getting a bit not that interesting,” says Lambourne. “We had a conversation and thought, ‘OK, clearly there’s a desire for clubs to interact with each other here, there’s obviously a desire from fans in terms of getting engaged as well, so how can we kind of bring all that together?'
“When we got that message that football’s going to be off for three or four weeks, everyone just looked around and kind of panicked in terms of what we were going to do. We just tried to keep a bit of a clear head and think, ‘well we knew this was coming, so what can we do if our hands are tied behind our backs, what are the trends we’re seeing these days?’”
And out of that came the Ultimate Quaran-Team, a FIFA 20 esports knockout tournament featuring professional clubs from across Europe, Oceania, North America and Africa. Having initially invited 63 teams to join them in the competition, Orient promptly had to raise the total number of participants to 128 as swathes of clubs replied, in gif form, to express their interest in playing.
— Man City Esports (@mancityesports) March 16, 2020
Orient conducted a live draw for the tournament, which threw up an unusual tie between a club in Italy’s top flight and a team from England’s fourth tier, as well as many more that otherwise wouldn’t be happening if soccer was still being played outside the realms of imagination. Each club can choose who represents them in the tournament, whether it be one of their fans or even a first-team player.
UK bookmakers have already started taking bets on the competition. Clubs are being encouraged to stream their matches during the tournament on Amazon-owned gaming platform Twitch, which will be music to the ears of Orient’s main sponsors the Breyer Group and Dream Team, both of whom have so far had their branding decorate all promotional elements around the competition. Lambourne also says that Orient have “had a few calls” with agencies representing “big companies” that could look to come in as partners, although he adds that “it’s just whether or not they pull the trigger on that kind of thing.”
For their part the O’s, as Orient are nicknamed, were drawn at home to Russian Premier League side Lokomotiv Moskow. For a modest-sized East London club currently sitting 17th in England’s fourth tier, it shouldn’t be underestimated what impact it can have to suddenly be rubbing shoulders with the likes of AS Roma, Manchester City and Ajax – even if it is only digitally.
Ooooh – they'll be dancing on the streets of Walsall tonight. (Please follow government advice if doing so.)
What a tie that is, as European giants AS Roma make the trip to Bank's stadium.#UltimateQuaranTeam
— Leyton Orient (@leytonorientfc) March 17, 2020
Since launching the Ultimate Quaran-Team the club’s Twitter has increased by 22,000 followers, Lambourne notes, growing from 63,000 to what now stands at just north of 85,000.
“First and foremost it was an exposure and engagement operation in the sense that we wanted to keep our fans interested and we knew along the way that we’d benefit from that through other clubs getting involved,” adds Lambourne, who joined Orient less than a month ago. “I don’t think we knew just how quickly it would snowball. In terms of the traffic and the numbers we’re seeing it’s absolutely ridiculous, so in terms of that growth it’s unheard of really, and we haven’t even kicked a virtual ball yet.”
Beyond the strictly business side of things, what this has also shown sport’s power to enact a positive influence through social media, a place that can otherwise be riddled with toxicity even at the best of times. Tennis’ ATP Tour, for example, fused together separate clips of Roger Federer interviews to create one video of the Swiss great telling people to wash their hands. Other social handles have posted regular reminders for people to stay at home to prevent spreading the coronavirus. Some athletes have even shared videos of their fitness regimes – or clips simply of them doing the #StayAtHome keepy-uppy toilet roll challenge – to help fans keep active indoors.
— ATP Tour (@atptour) March 18, 2020
Orient, meanwhile, are attempting to raise money on the back of the attention their esports tournament has generated. The club has set up a JustGiving page that at the time of writing has received UK£28,005 of its UK£50,000 target. Of the final amount raised, 25 per cent will be split between the MIND mental health charity and the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund. The remaining 75 per cent will be given to the English Football League (EFL) – of which Orient are a member – to help clubs hit particularly hard by the health crisis.
“I don’t think people really understand how much this is going to affect football clubs,” says Lambourne. “Other clubs that have well documented troubles could be in a position where all of a sudden they’re struggling to stay alive. So it’s just trying to shine a bit of a spotlight on that and make people understand how tough it is going to be for clubs. If we can get to that level where we can make a small difference in clubs it would be amazing. There are some big clubs involved as well so it would be nice if they maybe could make a contribution to it.”
Stepping back for a moment, though, the fact that a club plying their trade in the lower rungs of English soccer have been able to garner such attention with a FIFA tournament is indicative of the fact that fans right now more than ever are craving something that is live and unpredictable. Indeed, even in a time of trouble and uncertainty, sports can still provide some light relief, which will challenge in-house media teams around the world to get creative.
— Phil Foden (@PhilFoden) March 18, 2020
Top-flight Spanish side Leganes, for example, live tweeted their postponed relegation clash with Real Valladolid on Saturday as if it had actually gone ahead. La Liga, the competition in which the two teams compete, has already followed Orient’s lead with an eTournament of its own. In motorsports, stock car racing organisation Nascar has launched a new simulation series in which some of its top-tier drivers will compete. Then there are the endless catalogues of highlights and match replays being shared across the social channels of every team and league.
But that will likely only go so far. Soon enough – if not already – every platform that broadcasts sports content will be packed with historical programming. Gags and threads around imaginary or past fixtures might work once or twice. Watching social media handles take each other on at Noughts and Crosses or Connect Four will also only entertain for so long.
I think the best social media teams are the ones that can keep an eye on the landscape and adapt to it how it’s going along.
Yet with government restrictions preventing fans from physically interacting with their favourite sports, there is an argument that clubs and leagues are relying on their social media teams more than ever before. But with their most valuable assets – the athletes – in isolation, the challenge to create new content that can generate that engagement has perhaps never been greater.
In any case, fans are going to have little choice other than to watch what they come up with next.
“Things just change on a daily basis [at the moment],” says Lambourne. “I think the best social media teams are the ones that can keep an eye on the landscape and adapt to it how it’s going along. We probably could have sat down and tried to plan 100 ideas before this Fifa thing was top of the list, but just from watching and observing it’s one of the best ways to capitalise on things.
“This one might only last for another ten, 11 days, and football could not be back for another six or seven months. So it’s going to be a lot more after this in terms of what we can do to keep fans involved.”