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Young fans have the power to redefine football with virtual league of their own

A curious thing happened in our corner of south east London last month. Normally quiet side streets were rammed with double parked cars, the babble of excited young fans with accents from around the country filled the air and the sold out signs went up at The Valley for the first time in many years.

Since the absentee owner Roland Duchâtelet began his one man war against Charlton Athletic’s fanbase, it has often been hard to tell when there is a home match in SE7 as a dispirited, desperate and dwindling band continue their estimable protest against an owner who has hollowed out their proud club.

But these hordes of youthful and giddy fans were wearing not the red of Charlton but the black and white replica shirts of Sidemen FC – an online phenomenon who were to play a team of YouTube Allstars in a charity match.

As just the latest iteration of a dizzying set of developments that have left those of us who find the prospect of watching clips of other people playing the video game Fifa as baffling as parents of the 1950s found a Chuck Berry 45, it was a sign that something is shifting.

There is a palpable nervousness among television executives, expensively attired sporting executives and the concentric circles of advisers and analysts that populate the industry that something may be happening beyond their immediate vision.

Television ratings for live sport, the rights fees for which have for so long been the engine that has powered the growth of sport in the modern era, are down. The Olympics, once seen as the pinnacle of sport but now tainted by cynicism, are struggling to attract a younger audience.

Meanwhile interest in the likes of the Sidemen and Spencer FC, a gang of Sunday League footballers that reach audiences of 2m plus on YouTube for their matches in an imaginary league, is up.

Rather like the swirl of the current political climate, there is a sense in which the combination of changes in media consumption and the sporting landscape have led to a youthful thirst for forms of sport and entertainment that the mainstream has been slow to pick up on.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that as the old places where the young carved out an identity away from their parents – football grounds and concert arenas – have become the overpriced domain of their elders, they should seek out new ways of defining themselves against previous generations and find these virtual spaces where they can gather, play and posture.

It is these shifting tectonic plates that the Guardian’s Sport 2.0 series, which grew out of a series of four documentaries conceived by our award winning sports photographer Tom Jenkins, has this week tried to track.

How football is adapting to the demands of the digital world – video

As ever, future gazing is an inexact science. In trying to predict the future it is impossible to escape the whiff of those much parodied black and white documentaries that predicted we would all be travelling to work in hovercrafts.

And yet, just because we cannot tell where any of these trends are leading it does not mean that we should not try to identify them. Our series of films and articles – from drone racing and driverless F1 to the debate over whether video gaming is a sport, from the concept of watching holographic players beamed in from the other side of the world to the challenges facing traditional formats to maintain an audience – have raised more questions than answers.

They go beyond the old pub argument of what makes a sport, and challenge long held assumptions. Perhaps it is no coincidence that they have played out against the backdrop of a continual drip feed of ennui-inducing news from traditional sport – most recently from British Cycling.

As Jenkins and writer Simon Hattenstone proved in their final dispatch from South Korea , the dystopian dark side of e-gaming does not suggest that new forms of sport will be any less prey to malevolent forces.

Amid concerns over grassroots sport and participation, the prospect of a generation bathed in the glow of screens can seem depressing.

Yet there is hope here too. The kids playing Fifa, following Spencer FC or worshipping at the digital altar of a Neymar avatar then practising their party tricks in the park are just as in thrall to football as their parents who were hooked in through yellowing programmes and Jimmy Hill.

It is hard to see where all this is all ultimately headed. But what is not in doubt is that the old order is changing and those sports that do not remain curious enough to at least ask the questions will eventually wither and die.

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