The digital world is changing. The next big development is set to be the metaverse, a technology which will create a 3D version of the internet in which users can live in via avatars. And if our lives become even more digitalised, what will the metaverse mean for football?
Football has always adapted and survived, no matter what technological developments have come along in the two centuries humans have been playing the beautiful game. Television and the internet were at one time or another considered serious threats to the future of football, and yet here we are in the 21st century with it still the most popular sport in the world.
When it comes to the metaverse, similar concerns are being expressed. How can football compete when, rather than leave the house to play or watch the sport, users of the metaverse will potentially be able to do so from their own home via virtual reality?
Why go to a stadium to watch a live game when you could sit in your lounge and experience Manchester City v Liverpool via VR from a digitalised version of the Etihad? That one is a lot closer than you might think, too…
But rather than being a threat to football, might the metaverse provide further opportunities to grow the sport that does not currently exist? Could the metaverse be good for football?
So many questions and so many theories, which we are going to try and pick our way through to answer the question of whether football can survive when the metaverse becomes universally accessible and popular.
What is the metaverse?
To the uninitiated, the metaverse might sound like something that is 50 or 60 years away in terms of technology. It is predicted to be an $800 billion market by 2024 thanks to technology giants such as Facebook – or Meta as they have now conveniently rebranded – Google, Microsoft and Apple all pouring money into the metaverse to make it a reality.
What they are attempting to build is a 3D version of the internet. The metaverse would be a digital place parallel to the physical world. Here, you would live out your digital life rather than doing so in 2D through a computer or smartphone. For example, Amazon and eBay would become online shops you walk into and physically browse, rather than websites to buy from.
Users of the metaverse will own a single avatar and interact with other uses through this avatar. As well as an avatar, you would own digital assets inside the metaverse, which will likely be recorded on a blockchain.
This is one of the reasons why cryptocurrency and NFTs are such hot topics currently. Despite all the controversies surrounding these forms of digital currency, when the metaverse arrives they will have a huge part to play in our lives.
The metaverse and Fortnite
Still confused? Okay, let us try and break the metaverse down even further. Think about the game Fortnite, which has over 350 million registered players worldwide and had generated £6.5 billion in revenue within two years of its release.
In Fortnite, users have a personal avatar with which they engage with other users. They earn virtual currency to spend on items within the game, such as outfits for their avatar. Adults and children who play Fortnite can at a very basic level live in a fantasy digital world.
The next step up from Fortnite is the simulation game Second Life. Rather than being a shooter game, it allows users to do everything they would in real life through their avatar. You can shop, eat, shower and interact with other users. Think The Sims, but interacting with other real humans rather than characters created by a computer.
Experts believe that the metaverse will take this onto another level. Virtually reality will become so encompassing that users will float into the digital world, being able to do everything from buying land to hosting parties to marrying other digital avatars.
How to access the metaverse
To experience the metaverse, you need to have virtual reality hardware such as Google Cardboard glasses or a VR headset. These devices produced by different companies currently allow you to access small areas of the metaverse linked to them; like how Fortnite and Second Life are separate entities with no crossover.
At this moment in time, there is no way to move freely through the metaverse, as there is in the physical world. Each part of the metaverse is like an app on a smartphone; opening an app takes you to a small corner of the digital world. You open another app to enter another. No apps are truly interconnected, as the metaverse aims to be.
What will change this fracture in the metaverse is a single gateway being invented through which the whole world can access it. When this happens, users will have full connectivity and be able to move through the entire metaverse at will, as VR takes them into a parallel digital universe.
The single gateway will also make it easier for those without specialist VR hardware to enter the metaverse. Although not as immersive, smartphones, tablets and computers will enable access to the metaverse.
Think about the Pokémon Go phenomenon, when users could go outside and catch Pokémon in their local park through the creatures popping up on the screen of their smartphone in real-time. That is a very basic example of how the metaverse might arrive through devices millions of us already own.
The metaverse and watching football
We already have some idea of what the metaverse will mean for football, from a spectating point of view at least. Serie A has been leading the way with AC Milan broadcasting their home game on May 1st 2022 against Fiorentina into the metaverse, setting a world first.
This involved an online pub where Milan fans with access to the metaverse could come together to watch the Rossoneri as they chased their first Italian title in 11 years. 10,000 users from the Middle East and North America were issued with free digital tokens to access the pub and spend on merchandise for their avatars such as Milan scarves and replica shirts.
There was a big screen on which users could watch the game together. Two further screens carried match statistics. Fans could talk and interact with other supporters, discussing the game, Milan’s hopes of winning the championship and celebrating their club’s 1-0 win.
Speaking to the BBC about the experience, Sayed Hassan Al Mousawi from Bahrain said: “I could watch the game, run around and read stats with my avatar. I also put on the new Serie A anti-racism campaign kit.”
Serie A has leapt in an attempt to reverse a decline in its fortunes. Once the most popular league in the world – as anyone who grew up watching Football Italia on Channel 4 during the 1990s can attest to – it has fallen behind the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga in recent years.
Unable to attract the sort of interest of those major European leagues through superstar players and big-money contracts, Italy has instead decided to target Generation X through the metaverse.
Serie A views the metaverse as a way of bringing people from all over the world together to share an authentic experience of what Italian football is like. The aim is that full, immersive exposure to the passion and culture of the game as if the user was in actual Italy – which is not currently possible through the existing internet – turns them into fans of the league.
Digital stadiums in the metaverse
As the most-watched football league in the world, the Premier League is less inclined to look for ways to grow its audience. But that does not make English football immune from exploring how the metaverse can be used to make it even more popular.
Manchester City has hired a metaverse director to explore how the richest club in England can best apply their resources to new technology. Championship strugglers Birmingham City might seem an unlikely club to be leading the way, but they have already digitally mapped their St Andrew’s Stadium.
It seems likely that the Citizens will follow Birmingham’s path, producing a digital Etihad Stadium to sit in the metaverse. At some point in the not-too-distant future, that could mean City fans from Brisbane to Beijing to Bangkok to Buenos Aires being able to pop on a pair of VR glasses, enter the metaverse and experience a game as if you were in the actual physical stadium.
The atmosphere, the crowd, the stands, and even the action on the pitch would be immersive. Multiple camera angles and players wearing motion sensors would allow a game to play out in front of a metaverse user, all from the comfort of their own home.
A digital Etihad could hold a million fans, offering a full Premier League matchday experience to metaverse users from all over the world, rather than just 53,400 supporters per game filling the stadium’s capacity. Football would become even more of a global sport, accessible to anyone with a connection to the metaverse.
The metaverse – bad news for match-going fans and broadcasters
It is not all good news, of course. Whilst Premier League clubs might lick their lips at the potential cash cow of charging metaverse users to watch from their digital stadium, there would be a knock-on impact in terms of atmosphere and the experience of the actual match-going fans.
Supporters who spend time and money watching their clubs live already complain about being an afterthought when it comes to inconvenient kick-off times and other pitfalls of the modern game. Match-going fans would likely become even less of a priority for clubs, given the power of the metaverse to reach even more potential customers on a global scale.
Broadcasters would surely resist such moves into the metaverse, too. The value of the billion-pound contracts signed by television companies for exclusive rights to show live Premier League football would diminish if fans could instead watch from a digital stadium in the metaverse. There is a long way to go before digital stadiums do become a reality due to the impact they would have on stakeholders with significant interests in football.
Grassroots football coaching and the metaverse
Much of the theorisation so far about the impact of the metaverse on football has focussed on what will happen at an elite level. Not much thought has been given to grassroots, which is odd is without strong grassroots, the sport cannot thrive at the top.
In terms of grassroots coaching in England, the metaverse has the potential to enable many more people to become qualified FA coaches. This can only be a good thing when it comes to creating more playing opportunities for children and raising standards.
Since 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic, the FA has begun to take advantage of the opportunities offered by technology and remote learning. In 2021, they replaced the FA Level 1 and Level 2 badges with new qualifications, the Introduction to Football Coaching and the UEFA C Licence.
Whereas FA Level 1 and Level 2 required coaches to attend sessions in person, the new programme involved remote learning through digital courses which could be completed online at convenient times.
Previously, a coach may have had to give up an hour to drive to a venue, another hour in a coaching session, and another hour returning home. Remote self-learning online instead enables the coach to complete each lesson as and when is convenient to them.
The FA has seen a surge in interest since adopting these changes. The metaverse offers the potential to go further. Rather than learning in 2D through a screen, a coach could pop on their VR headset and partake in a session in immersive 3D inside the metaverse.
This has the potential to combine the best elements of the previous physical attendance approach with the flexibility of the new coaching qualifications which have proven so popular. More prospective coaches will be encouraged to get involved and receive a higher standard of education through the metaverse, which can only be a good thing for grassroots football in England.
The impact of the metaverse on children’s football
In terms of the impact that the metaverse will have on children’s football, there are genuine fears. How can the sport survive when kids can interact, socialise and walk through a digital world without even needing to leave their homes? Might future generations spend more of their time in the metaverse rather than the actual physical universe they live in?
And those worries are well-founded. Many children are already fixated on social media and video games. The popularity of Fortnite amongst the younger generations shows that there is a big appeal in stepping into and spending time in an online world. An even more encompassing, realistic online universe brought about by the metaverse will be an even bigger draw.
There are reasons to remain optimistic about the future of children’s football, however, even in the face of the metaverse. When television came along in the 1950s, it was meant to be the death knell for football. Why go out and play the sport or watch in stadiums when this brand new technology could beam games in glorious black and white into your homes?
Specialist sports channels alongside the advent of the Premier League were next. Wall-to-wall coverage would kill off the grassroots game. The internet, live streaming, and social media… all were meant to have had a detrimental impact on football at a grassroots level. And yet here we are, 70 years on from television and with all those subsequent advancements in technology with the beautiful game still in rude health.
We Make Footballers, coaching children football and the metaverse
Rather than worrying about the problems the metaverse could cause for football, football should be looking at the opportunities it presents. One of the reasons why We Make Footballers have grown to become the biggest football academy for children aged 4 to 12 in England is because of our willingness to adapt to the changing world around us.
Social media has been a huge part of that. Footballing influencers with their tricks and highlights videos present a cool image of football, which reaches children even as they spend hours of their day scrolling through Instagram or TikTok. Social media has allowed football to showcase itself to children who may otherwise not have been touched by the sport.
Nobody quite knows what the metaverse will look like yet, either. There are plenty of ideas, but until it becomes a staple feature of our lives through the invention of that single gateway then it remains all theory. Until we do know, it is hard to pass judgement. There is every possibility the metaverse will end up being a good thing for children’s football.
What if a child could attend their physical, in-person We Make Footballers football training session on a Tuesday and then access another session later in the week, held in the metaverse? That would give our FA qualified coaches additional contact time with a child, improving player ability and helping further enshrine our philosophy of good practice makes permanent.
The metaverse cannot replace physical exercise and its benefits
One reason to be confident that grassroots football can survive even in a world where the metaverse exists is that England as a country has never been so aware of the benefits of physical exercise that playing sports like football offers.
We have the pandemic to partly thank for that. Lockdown brought into sharp focus the importance of regular exercise for physical and mental health. It seems impossible that running around a 100 metre by 68-metre area of grass, kicking a ball and socialising with friends can be fully replicated in the metaverse.
As a result, there will always be a need for training academies like We Make Footballers provide football in a fun and safe environment for children. We believe that our football sessions go beyond improving football ability; they also promote a healthy lifestyle. When the metaverse comes into being, that will be more important than ever.
What we are seeing even as we teeter on the brink of the next technological revolution – and flying in the face of suggestions that the internet is killing football – is an expansion of our franchises. More children are now playing football, helped by the increasing popularity of girl’s football which will be further fuelled by Euro 2022 coming to England in front of record-breaking crowds.
So, to answer the original question – can football survive in the face of popular new technology like the metaverse? With an open-minded approach and a willingness to embrace the future, football can not only survive but thrive. It is another challenge which We Make Footballers are looking forward to embracing.
We Make Footballers offer weekly football training sessions for children aged 4-12 across England. To find your nearest academy and sign up for a free taster session, please visit the We Make Footballers website.