PORTLAND, Ore. -- A 23-year-old from McMinnville who's never played professional soccer was signed to the Portland Timbers last week.
But he won't be playing on the field. Instead, Edgar Guerrero will represent the Timbers in the first-ever Major League Soccer "eSports" league. The EA Sports FIFA 18 league, launched by MLS in January, includes representatives from 19 MLS clubs competing against each other in the FIFA 18 soccer video game.
Guerrero was chosen to represent the Timbers from more than 100 potential candidates from around the country. According to Cory Dolich, the Timbers' senior vice president of business operations and marketing, Guerrero stood out not only because he ranks among the top 20 in the U.S. and top 35 in the Americas in FIFA 18 and has won a number of titles for the game, but also because he is a native Oregonian and speaks both English and Spanish.
"Edgar is highly competitive," Dolich said. "We wanted someone that would be able to potentially win the eMLS Cup."
For this first year, players from each of the 19 MLS clubs will compete in a single eMLS Cup tournament at PAX East, an independent video game showcase expected to draw around 140,000 people to the Boston Convention Center during the first week of April.
Like the club's other players, Guerrero will be paid, though the Timbers didn't disclose how much he will make and said the league is still working out a formal payment structure. He will also go through training on code of conduct and how to present himself on social media as a representative of the team.
Currently, the MLS only allows one eSports player per club, but Dolich said eventually the clubs may build development teams for eMLS, much like they do with their soccer clubs.
For the Timbers, entering the world on online gaming isn't just a novelty. Brian Costello, the club's director of digital marketing and editor-in-chief, said the venture may create financial returns in the not-so-far-off future.
Having a Timbers player in the online space, Costello said, will allow the team to develop brand awareness among a different set of fans: one that is younger and may not live in Portland.
"I think it really comes down to fan development," Costello said. "We know there is demand for people to watch the games but we can't fit everyone in the stands, and we want to grow in other ways. With eSports, we can pull in fans nationally and internationally because it's digital and FIFA is a huge entry point into soccer for younger people."
Dolich also said the Timbers have been contacted by a number of sponsors interested in working specifically in the eSports space.
"Our interest in eSports and video game culture is something we've been targeting for the past few years," Dolich said. "We are excited to be part of the league's evolution."