FootballSports

Inside Pique’s Kings League, turning sport to spectacle

A masked La Liga player, a special card to send off an opponent, club presidents taking penalties and Gerard Pique himself opining on a new rule voted for by viewers.

Something exciting is always happening in the former Barcelona defender’s Kings League, a competition he created, taking the internet by storm.

Two days after playing his last professional match in November, the former Barca player and his company Kosmos announced this league, which launched in January.

Somewhere between football, e-sports and reality TV, 12 well-known figures from sport — including Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero and Iker Casillas — and internet celebrities act as presidents of their own seven-a-side football teams.

It is proving popular, with an average of almost 500,000 live viewers per day, according to the organisers, while 50,000 tickets have been sold for the final four, to be played at Camp Nou on March 26.

“The idea was born from a reflection about why there’s a part of a young generation that finds it increasingly difficult to endure 90 minutes watching a professional football match,” explained the competition’s general manager, Oriol Querol.

To hold their attention, the Kings League offers a seven-hour carousel of stimuli, broadcast every Sunday from a hangar in the port area of Barcelona, with a small stand for guests to watch live, but accessible to the wider world on live video platform Twitch.

In its 40-minute matches, draws are forbidden, every goal is celebrated with pyrotechnics and fans have seen Aguero returning to football, intially appearing dressed as the Joker — drawing 1.37 million live viewers.

Former Real Madrid goalkeeper Casillas saved a penalty and Pique’s grandfather pulled out a card which decided a match would have to played with just one player on each team until half-time, among other entertaining moments.

The viewing peak could even be surpassed this weekend, with Ronaldinho announced as a guest player for streamer Ibai Llanos’s team Porcinos.

“What we want is for things to happen all the time,” added Querol.

“And the proof is that the gameweeks last seven hours, and in the seven hours there is a fairly stable audience base because we don’t give them a break.”

– Streaming stars –

Around 20 people fill the production room, working on the broadcast, processing the signal from the 17 cameras round the pitch, in the box and on the referee’s chest, as well as the reactions of the presidents or the coaches’ team-talks.

How well the competition, still looking for a way to become profitable, has been received has surprised the organisers themselves.

“I thought it might have some acceptance because there are great streamers involved and great ex-players like Casillas and Kun (…), but it is true that it has exceeded everyone’s expectations,” said Llanos.

Still dressed in shorts, because as president of Porcinos, he has just taken a penalty, the presence of this charismatic 27-year-old streamer was one of the main attractions of the Kings League.

A content creator and entrepreneur, Llanos started out commentating on video games and is now one of the most influential streamers in Spain, followed by a community of 12.6 million users on Twitch, the same as on Twitter.

A collaborator with Pique across several projects, Llanos sees a lot of potential in the Kings League, which will soon start its women’s edition, has a children’s edition planned and is considering expanding to other countries.

“I hope that it will be another job opportunity for many people, for the players themselves, that the whole issue of (financial) conditions will improve over time, that there will be many people who can live off of content covering the Kings League,” he says.

– Not a threat –

Around 11,000 players applied for the first draft, of which 120 were selected, forming the squads along with other higher profile players called up by the presidents.

“People who were able to play in the top flight come together with young people who give everything, who come as if this were a war,” explains former Espanyol player Joan Verdu.

The competition is a priority project for Kosmos, after the abrupt end of its contract to organise the Davis Cup tennis tournament.

The Kings League draws on ideas more commonly found in American sports — such as drafts, final fours, and half-time shows.

“Pique has been very skilful in creating this new experience here, which is unique, but connects with others on an international level which are betting on sport as a spectacle, to attract a new type of spectator,” said Xavier Ramon, professor of Communication at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

La Liga president Javier Tebas labelled it a “circus” but despite its initial success, the Kings League does not want to threaten the classic model.

“We have never thought of it as something that aims to compete with traditional football (…), a sport that is the biggest in the world,” says Querol.

“What we come to do is to add something, not to compete against anyone.”

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