Getting to the Cupra Arena, home of Gerard Piqué’s Kings League, to see a face-off between a Twitch streamer and a former Real Madrid goalkeeper requires patience and a prayer. Patience because there’s a chance you’ll end up driving in circles in the middle of nowhere, and a prayer that your taxi driver won’t get fed up and leave you stranded in the industrial outskirts of Barcelona.
Upon arrival, there’s a good chance you’ll get mobbed by teenagers hoping to catch a glimpse of soccer legends or internet stars. These celebrities serve as team presidents in the league created by Piqué, an ex-defender for FC Barcelona and ex-partner of Shakira. After the long drive to the area near the Port of Barcelona, our taxi eagerly dumped us in front of what looked like a storage building flanked by two port-a-potties. On the side, a sign read: “Kings League.”
Had it not been for the sign or the soccer players warming up on a nearby practice field, we might have thought we were in the wrong place. Kings League games, broadcast on Twitch, YouTube, and TikTok, look sleek and well-produced on the screen. In person, though, the 270-spectator Cupra Arena is a far cry from the multimillion-dollar extravagance of traditional soccer stadiums or even modest Spanish high school gyms. The minuscule hallways are painted a drab grey. The arena’s seats are shabby. The VIP seats, where Piqué sits, aren’t so VIP.
All of this may seem like the opposite of what you would expect from Piqué, a soccer legend worth millions. But it doesn’t matter. Piqué’s version of indoor soccer wasn’t meant to be experienced in person; it was meant to be seen on streaming platforms. And online, it looks good enough.
Welcome to the Kings League.
Why did Gerard Piqué start the Kings League?
Piqué announced his new vision for indoor soccer last November via his company, Kosmos, less than a week after retiring from FC Barcelona. With the Kings League, Piqué aimed to address what he saw as problems with traditional outdoor soccer. At 90 minutes, he and other Kosmos officials felt old-school matches were too long. They also thought there weren’t enough interesting things happening to entertain viewers.
Kosmos came up with a solution: Make the games shorter to appeal to younger viewers, ramp up the drama, and utilise the power of the internet. Of the Kings League’s 12 teams, nine are headed by streamers, two by ex-professional soccer players, and one by a TikTok star. Nearly all are led by men. The Mexican Twitch star Samy Rivera, known as Rivers, is the only woman president in the Kings League.
All club presidents broadcast their teams’ games on their channels and create content about the league. In addition, they appear on the talk show-style programs hosted by Piqué before and after the games — essentially ensuring that there’s Kings League content streaming all week long.
Oriol Querol, CEO of the Kings League, told Gizmodo the league’s games combined traditional sports with a dynamic TV format where things are happening constantly.
“What we’ve managed to do is to bring together the best of those things. The soccer is high-quality and it looks good. Because if it didn’t, we don’t think it would be sustainable long-term,” Querol said. That doesn’t mean that Kings League soccer isn’t serious, he stressed, it’s just more fun.
How does soccer in the Kings League work?
Watching a Kings League match is like watching your friends play FIFA. Every Sunday, all 12 teams get together to duke it out over six hours and avoid elimination. Games last for two 20-minute halves, and they’re always different. Although the Kings League has its own official rulebook, Piqué, Kosmos officials, and the presidents delight in adding and changing rules on an almost weekly basis.
What the Kings League lacks in facilities, it makes up for in stunts. To start the game, a referee places the ball in the middle of the field, and teams run to get it from the sidelines, a nod to water polo’s frantic version of a kickoff. During the game, coaches can use one of six “Secret Weapon” cards, which include kicking a rival player out of the game for two minutes or having goals count for two points instead of one.
Piqué also has his moment in the spotlight with his “League Cards,” which add a twist to each match reminiscent of a video game. Each card takes a certain number of players off the field for the last two minutes of the first half and has the remaining ones face off until time is up. The League Cards include a gruelling “one vs. one” card, which leaves only one player from each team on the field.
Fans can participate in the Calvinball-style rulemaking, too. In February, the Kings League had fans vote on adopting a new card where club presidents take a penalty kick. Nearly 19,000 fans voted in favour on Twitter, which ultimately led to the February faceoff between Ibai, who holds the world record for most concurrent views on Twitch, and Casillas, the legendary ex-goalkeeper for Real Madrid.
The showdown began a day before that week’s game during a livestream when Casillas dropped onto the field from above with angel wings on his back. Ibai, far from a professional soccer player himself, wasn’t sold on taking the kick at first, but he was convinced when Kings League organisers unveiled a series of videos from Spanish soccer legends, including former Real Madrid coach José Mourinho, encouraging him to “do it.”
“Iker, it’s an honour for me to shoot this penalty kick, man,” Ibai said right before he took his shot on Feb. 19, which Gizmodo saw in person. “What can I say? I’m freaking out, truly. I’ve seen you play games on TV a lot. Being here is weird. I’m having a horrible time.”
The streamer’s agony was short-lived. Against all odds, he scored. As the goal post erupted into sparks and smoke, Ibai ran over to his team on the field and hugged them, all while Casillas appeared to be shocked and muttering profanities. When it was his turn to take a penalty kick against Ibai’s goalkeeper, Casillas suffered another blow. He didn’t make the shot.
The Kings League’s streamers: Ibai, TheGrefg, Spursito, and more
The Kings League was born during lunch between Piqué and Ibai. The two partners have created some of the most bizarre sporting events in the history of streaming, such as the Balloon World Cup, where participants fight to keep a balloon from touching the ground. But while the Balloon World Cup was created on a whim, the Kings League was forged over months.
Ibai explained the process after he made his penalty against Casillas. He had streamed himself watching and narrating the match while it happened, and still had drops of sweat on his forehead after the euphoric ending.
“We were eating one day many months ago and we talked about the possibility of creating this league,” Ibai told Gizmodo. “I gave him my ideas, and I also recommended many of the people who are in the league now because I believed they would provide a lot of spectacle and they’re friends of mine. But this is really Piqué’s project.” Piqué declined to speak to Gizmodo about the Kings League.
The friends Ibai refers to include Martí Miras, who is known by his online handle, Spursito. Before entering the Kings League, Spursito primarily streamed soccer content on Twitch and YouTube.
“I knew it could be something really big, but it took a long time for me to sign on at first because I thought, ‘It’s very difficult for this to actually happen. It needs a lot of love, attention, and money,’” he told Gizmodo. “Now I think, ‘Damn, if I didn’t do it, what would have happened?’ I’d be wanting to.”
All teams have names from the internet age. Spursito presides over the team “Rayo de Barcelona,” or “Lightning Bolt from Barcelona” in English. Ibai’s club, “Porcinos FC,” translates to “Swine FC.” The streamer Perxitaa, whose real name is Jaume Cremades, named his team “Los Troncos FC,” which literally means “Tree Trunks FC,” although it also means “the dudes” in Spanish slang.
Twitch has a strong relationship with most of the streamers involved in the Kings League, although the league itself is not a Twitch production. Jannik Hülshoff, a senior director of partnerships at Twitch in Europe, told Gizmodo the Kings League had been a “non-stop hype fest, week-in, week-out” and that he was amazed at the quality of the matches and fan interactivity on the streaming service.
The Kings League presidents are involved in choosing their players in a process inspired by the NBA draft. Anyone can sign up, no professional experience required, and they’re paid to play. Kings League officials declined to tell Gizmodo how much players make, stating only that payment corresponds to the one hour a week (game day on Sundays) it requires players to dedicate to the league. They added that the Kings League is an amateur league and is not designed to compensate players enough to quit their day jobs. Considering the success it’s seen, though, Piqué has announced that players’ salaries will increase next season.
In addition, each team has two players that are considered “wildcards,” whose compensation varies. Ibai’s Porcinos FC has attracted the most attention from its use of wildcards. He snagged Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, the top scorer for Mexico’s national team, for Porcinos’ first game in the Kings League. This past Sunday, retired Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldinho made a brief return to soccer with Porcinos, drawing more than two million viewers to the stream.
Wildcards aside, each president is laser-focused on winning. On Feb. 19, Gizmodo saw Perxitaa exit the Cupra Arena shouting after his team lost.
“At the end of the day, this is a sport, it’s soccer. We suffer, we have a bad time,” Perxitaa said after cooling off. “As content creators, we live it a bit more. We share these moments with the community, we’re just as nervous as our community when the game comes around.”
And the victories, Perxitaa said, don’t just belong to the presidents, “they belong to the team and to my community.”
Spanish soccer league president Javier Tebas calls the Kings League a “circus”
The Kings League isn’t without its critics, who slam the project for changing soccer’s rules and making its games hard to understand.
One of the most prominent critiques came from Javier Tebas, president of LaLiga, Spain’s top professional soccer league. Shortly after the Kings League started on Jan. 1, Tebas dismissed it as a possible competitor to mainstream soccer on paid TV, even though they both air on the same day. Unlike LaLiga’s games, the Kings League is free to watch on Twitch, YouTube, and TikTok, and doesn’t have commercial breaks. It makes money through sponsorships with brands like Spotify, McDonalds, and Xiaomi, as well as through revenue sharing with the streaming platforms.
The LaLiga president went on to say the only thing mainstream soccer and the Kings League had in common was that both were played with a ball and that the point was to make goals.
“It’s a circus, and it’s not about whether it can attract younger viewers,” Tebas said on Jan. 9. “As a circus, I like the Kings League, but you can’t compare it to the soccer industry.”
The insult didn’t land as expected. Shortly after Tebas’ comments, Piqué welcomed everyone to the “Kings League circus” on Twitter and promised to unveil a “bomb” at the next Kings League game.
Bienvenidos al circo de la @KingsLeague! 🎭 La bomba que se viene el próximo domingo es una cosa de locos. Tic tac, tic tac. 💣
— Gerard Piqué (@3gerardpique) January 9, 2023
The “bomb” turned out to be a wildcard for Kunisports, the team of Argentine striker Sergio “El Kun” Agüero, who was teased as a mysterious masked clown. Upon removing his mask, the clown was revealed to be Agüero himself. Agüero retired from professional soccer because of heart issues last year, but he briefly returned to the field for the Kings League.
The Kings League’s presidents have likewise gleefully embraced Tebas’ “circus” critique. Spursito told Gizmodo at the Cupra Arena the league was a “beautiful circus” and that he was thankful to Tebas for his “perfect” description.
But not all critiques come from the outside. Those same presidents grumble about the Kings League’s ever-changing and sometimes unclear rules.
One of the most recent fights involved Piqué’s “one vs. one” League card, which leaves each team with only one player on the field. On Feb. 19, the same day Ibai scored against Casillas, a referee confused the rules for the card during a match between streamer Juan Guarnizo’s “Aniquiladores FC” ( “Annihilators”) and Spursito’s Rayo, which ultimately allowed Guarnizo’s team to score three goals. When Spursito jumped on the field to ask for explanations, Piqué decided to make the teams play the last two minutes of the game again. The second time, Guarnizo’s team lost.
The anger over these decisions had fans waiting on the edge of their seats for After Kings, the Kings League show aired the day after the games. During the show, Guarnizó fought heatedly with Piqué and the referees. After the fight, Piqué ended up changing the league’s rules (again).
Kosmos plans to launch a new Queens League in May
The league finale at the end of March won’t be the end of Piqué’s vision for a new era of indoor soccer. The ex-soccer star is already hard at work on his Queens League for women’s indoor soccer, which will debut in May, as well as on international expansions of the men’s version in other languages and countries.
The Queens League is currently holding an open call for players for its 12 teams and will hold a draft on April 16 at the Cupra Arena. The Kings League streamers will remain as heads of their teams, though some have brought on women streamers as co-presidents, including Gemita and Mayichi.
Ibai revealed Gemita, whose real name is Gemma Gallardo, as the co-president of “Porcinas FC” — the Spanish feminine version of “swine” — in a livestream on Feb. 24, eliciting gasps from the presidents. Besides being a streaming sensation in her own right, Gemita is also the ex-girlfriend of TheGrefg, president of Saiyans FC. TheGrefg, for his part, responded to the news with a dazed expression and a nervous smile.
Gemita told Gizmodo she was thrilled when Ibai, who she called an icon in content creation, asked her to co-lead Porcinas FC. Like many other league presidents, she hasn’t played professional soccer, but she’s been a fan since she was a young girl. Her grandfather was a professional soccer player, and her brother has played all his life. Gemita isn’t a stranger to sports, either. She’s played competitive ping pong on the national stage and also plays paddle tennis and practices surfing and snowboarding.
“The most important thing about all of this for me is to enjoy the experience and to show people that female soccer is at the same level as male soccer,” she said. “We’re going to do amazing, and we’re going to have a good time.”
Sara Mérida, a former first division women’s soccer player in charge of scouting for the Queens League, told Gizmodo she joined the project because she felt it was a chance to make an enormous step forward in women’s soccer. She shared that so far, she’s seen applications for the league from former ex-professional women’s soccer players and former players for Spain’s World Cup team.
Mérida said her goal with the Queens League is to help audiences understand that putting on a good show has nothing to do with gender.
“In the end, you can enjoy soccer regardless of gender,” she said. “I hope that once and for all, we can stop talking about men’s soccer and women’s soccer, and simply talk about soccer.”
Piqué’s Kings League will end at FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou
Love it or hate it, there’s no doubt that the Kings League is doing something right. Its Twitch channel was the top channel in Spain in February by far, bringing in an average of 219,800 viewers and a max of 908,600 for its 13 streams that month, according to the Spanish streaming tracker TVTOP España.
While attracting eyeballs to screens is one thing, Pique will have a chance to prove that the Kings League is more than just a circus soon. On March 26, the final four will face off for the championship in FC Barcelona’s famed Camp Nou stadium. It will be the first Kings League game open to the general public, with tickets costing between €10 and €60, although fans will also be able to watch online. More than 50,000 tickets have already been sold.
Juanma González, a former professional soccer player who left his team to play for DjMaRiiO’s “Ultimate Móstoles,” has shined in the Kings League. González told Gizmodo it’s his dream to play in Barcelona’s famed Camp Nou. He thinks his team, which is currently in third place, has a shot at making it to the grand finale.
As for the tension between the Kings League and traditional soccer, González said people don’t have to choose between them. Lifelong soccer fans have reached out to him and told him they watch the Kings League because it’s intense and has good players. Others have told him they don’t watch soccer but like the Kings League because of the “secret weapon” cards and because the games are shorter.
They’re completely different sports, González explained.
“I think the secret to why the Kings League works is that it can attract different types of viewers,” he said. “Some may like soccer more than others, but when they watch the Kings League, they have a good time.”
Spectating at the Cupra Arena was like watching neighbourhood soccer games on the big stage. Friends and family filled the stands. Presidents walked around beaming and fuming. The winning teams sang and jumped around in their tiny locker rooms. However, the Kings League wasn’t meant to be watched from the sidelines, and we often felt like we were missing important parts of the show. After a while, one of us took out a phone to watch Ibai’s live broadcast on Twitch.
In the midst of the last game, we decided to make our exit. It was dark and cold out, and there was not a taxi in sight, nor one that seemed to want to come out to a random place on the port. After thinking the taxi gods had miraculously blessed us with a driver to take us back to our hotel, the driver cancelled. We took the metro back to Barcelona.