It is the thing that many devout football fans dream of; to pull on the shirt of your beloved team in fervent competition. This is exactly what is happening for Celtic fans Sean O’Connor and Shea Sweeney, albeit not in the conventional sense.
O’Connor and Sweeney will be lining up for the Celtic FC Esports team at the Call of Duty World League Championships after the Scottish Premier League champions signed the player’s team this week. The two Scots will line up alongside fellow Brits Ben Bance, Byron Plumridge and Sam Dineley at the military shooter’s most prestigious tournament.
The tournament takes place from the 14-19 August in Los Angeles, with 32 teams battling it out on futuristic shoot ‘em up Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 in an attempt to win a share of the $2m prize pool.
Celtic will become the first British club to sign an esports team for a major competition outside of the FIFA football series. Premier League clubs Manchester City and West Ham have their own dedicated FIFA players, but until now British clubs have not followed the lead of European clubs such as Paris St-Germain and Galatasaray. The French and Turkish clubs have teams competing in other esports such as multiplayer battle arena games Dota 2 and League of Legends.
Even without football as the focus, the formation of Celtic’s Call of Duty team is still Roy of the Rovers stuff. The team of unsigned Brits had already qualified for the tournament under the name of ‘The Bhoys’ --Celtic’s nickname-- by finishing first in the Call of Duty World League Amateur Finals in July. But it wasn’t until this week that they found a home at the club, which said it was seeking to branch out into esports beyond FIFA.
“After a successful performance and just missing out on the eFootball.Pro’s inaugural championship title against AS Monaco Esports, Celtic FC Esports are currently evaluating the possibility of expanding into other esports competitions,” Celtic said in a statement.
“Call of Duty is a hugely popular gaming title around the world, and the World League Championship is a world-class esports event that has attracted millions of online and offline viewers in recent years.”
“This will be a great opportunity for Celtic FC Esports to align with a world-class esports event. It will give the team worldwide exposure, before Activision converts the league into a city-based franchised model with slots going for $25million each.”
The Call of Duty publishers Activision announced in May that it was creating a city-based league, similar to the successful Overwatch League. It revealed that Atlanta, Dallas, New York, Paris and Toronto were the first cities to sign up, with more to follow.
As a team of relatively unseasoned players, Celtic will face an uphill battle to make an impact on the World League Finals. However, they could be seen as a dark horse for some, with Bance in particular highlighted as a potential standout performer. The 21-year old Englishman rose to prominence after helping US team Splyce to a 2nd place finish at the 2016 CoD World League Grand Final.
Most intriguing, however, is Celtic’s decision to expand its esports offering beyond football simulation. The $1bn esports industry has shot to mainstream prominence in recent weeks following the widespread coverage of the Fortnite World Cup. With many major football clubs making inroads into esports, it could be that Celtic’s involvement is a bellwether for other British clubs looking to try their hand at global events.