Gaming Canaries: Norwich City’s transition with 1J Esports

After seven months of build-up, Norwich City rose to the occasion and won FIFA’s ePremier League for the first time in the football club’s history. However, Norwich’s real story began 18 months ago with the founding of 1J Esports, as it attempts to tap into the elusive 14+ market.

1J Esports Norwich City logo
Image credit: 1J Esports / Norwich City

In a closely fought tournament, Norwich City’s Damian ‘Damie’ Augustyniak and Jack ‘GoalPoacher_’ Wignall won 5-1 on aggregate in the ePremierLeague Grand Final against Brentford, the first major accolade for the football-turned-esports club.

Norwich’s win marked the biggest success for its esports team — 1J Esports — since it was founded in September 2021. 1J Esports was designed to create a new brand identity for Norwich’s esports team, whilst also paying homage to the football club’s heritage by utilising its location and postcode (NR1 1JE).

“We noticed that 14+ was a difficult group to reach, so we gave Bidstack and Badu Sports’ students the task of researching how best to engage with that demographic,” said Jake Gent, Esports Manager at Norwich City Football Club, explaining the story behind 1J’s formation.

“The students came to Carrow Road and delivered a presentation on our current youth engagement activations and areas for development with one of the takeaways being how the target audience engage with gaming and video content. Alongside some independent research, esports and gaming was the route we decided to go down – and it took about a year of planning before we were in a position to launch the team.”

Advertising company Bidstack is Norwich’s first-ever commercial esports partner. Additionally, both entities are working in partnership with sports education community group Badu Sports to offer work experience placements and esports qualifications to its students.

Image credit: Norwich City

1J certainly isn’t the first traditional football club to take notice of the valuable opportunity esports offers to reach a younger, increasingly elusive demographic of potential fans. A long line of other big names from the world’s most popular sport have also ventured into the esports industry, including Wolves Esports, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), Manchester City, Schalke 04 and FC Barcelona, amongst others.

What is perhaps even more fascinating is how each club has seemingly used a different strategy to try and engage with this community. PSG has gone the partnership route to develop separate, join-venture rosters with other organisations, while Wolves Esports has gone it alone with its own rosters in a range of competitive titles.

Norwich’s use of an esports team as a marketing tool to generate engagement amongst the 14+ market appears to be working. Thanks to its ePremier League (ePL) performance, 1J reported a 500 percent increase in social impressions over the course of the ePL weekend, and a 400 percent increase in followers, the team told Esports Insider.

The ePL win marked a pinnacle for 1J, but its journey to the upper echelons of FIFA was by no means easy. In October last year, 1J announced it had signed Kylem ‘Lyricz’ Edwards, a well-respected pro FIFA player who it had hoped would represent them in the ePremier League and beyond.

Things didn’t go entirely to plan when Edwards was out-qualified and couldn’t represent the team in its biggest matches of the year to date. However, keeping Edwards on the books allowed the organisation to develop alongside the player, with neither wavering since. According to the organisation, this also simultaneously provided opportunities for other young talent.

Perhaps the biggest issue facing 1J, however, is the success of its parent, Norwich City Football Club. Due to Norwich’s relegation from the Premier League — England’s top-flight football league — Norwich and 1J will not be allowed to try and retain its ePremier League title next year.

1J esports image bidstack sponsor
Image credit: 1J Esports

Gent, however, was confident that this wouldn’t actually be a setback. In fact, Norwich’s recent performance in the Premier League was actually one of the reasons it branded as 1J Esports as opposed to calling itself ‘Norwich City Esports’.

“We didn’t want to be known as Norwich City Esports as we felt like it would limit our following, given our objective is to grow beyond the current Norwich City fanbase,” Gent explained.

Thanks to the success of other clubs entering the world of esports over the last few years, it is no surprise that Norwich wants to follow suit. Gent made clear that 1J and Norwich are looking to make the team as successful as possible, and see it as a long term project post-ePremier League success.

Converting 1J fans to Norwich fans would be an added bonus, but that’s not the priority — 1J wants to become a self-sufficient commercial entity, the team said.

“The original plan was a three-year strategy,” Gent shared, adding that an expansion into a new title was always the plan for year two. Indeed, 1J is poised to keep to that schedule: “After the success of this year, we would like to enter into a new title soon, ” he said.

Options for that second title include Fortnite, Halo, League of Legends and Rocket League. All these titles offer 1J the chance to distance itself from Norwich and grow out its own brand, bringing in more fans, the organisation said. Nevertheless, deciding which title to enter is crucial, with each scene having its own distinct community, fandom and approaches.

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By venturing into the esports space, many of these clubs-turned-esports-organisations are heading into unknown territory, unsure — as we all are — of how the project will play out long term.

Bidstack and Badu Sport are nonetheless throwing their weight behind 1J, and are confident it can continue its success after a year in partnership together. “For all of us here at Badu, our goal is to provide the young people we work with opportunities that empower and uplift them”, Jan Habiak, Badu’s Digital Marketing Specialist, told Esports Insider.

“Our partnership with Norwich FC and Bidstack has allowed young people to be a part of something amazing. We are so proud to see that their concept has blossomed into a successful 1J Esports team who have been crowned ePremier League champions.”

With more sports teams entering the esports market each year — all largely vying for the attention of the same vital demographic — competition will continue to grow. As the novelty starts wearing off, this new breed of teams will have to work harder and harder to stand out.

UPDATE (20/05/2022 6:45pm): This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Jake Gent holds the position of Esports Manager at Norwich City Football Club, and that Fortnite not Call of Duty is one of its options for expansion.

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