At the start of 2018, the National Football League (NFL) entered into a new media partnership with Disney and its ESPN sports network.

But the subject of this agreement was not the Super Bowl, the playoffs, or access to big-name sporting stars. Instead, it incorporated broadcasting rights for head-to-head digital match-ups, featuring elite players of Electronic Arts’ (EA) football-themed video game series named after John Madden, the Hall of Fame coach and iconoclastic sportscaster.

EA and the NFL have worked together for 25 years on the Madden franchise, which has sold over 130 million units and registered 75 million mobile installations to date. But the NFL and Disney/ESPN partnership nods toward the future, as it involves eSports, where fans of the virtual gridiron huddle either online or at real-life gatherings to watch the best gamers demonstrate their skills, or compete for cachet and cash.