Though there are plenty of people who believe sports belong on grass fields, hardcourts and definitely not games consoles, that hasn’t stopped eSports—video game sporting competitions—taking the world by storm. According to esportsearnings.com, the number of large-scale tournaments catapulted from 10 in 2000 to a huge 696 in 2012. In that time, the prize money also skyrocketed from roughly $350,000 to almost $10.3 million. Having gone from cult to commonplace so rapidly, the eSports market is now predicted to exceed $1.5 billion by 2023.
There’s no denying that many hardcore sports fans would be reluctant to turn to eSports when they could be enjoying the thrills of a football or baseball game. However, real-life sports events are just one of the luxuries that are off the table due to the coronavirus pandemic. And now since sports aficionados can no longer bet on live games online or in casinos, and people cannot support their favorite teams from the bleachers, or even the bars, eSports suddenly look far more appealing. In fact, as all the world’s biggest sports leagues started to shut down, Twitch (the chief eSports streaming site) reported a 31% increase in viewers between February and March.
It may not be wholly surprising that self-isolation has caused eSports to surge, but judging by recent developments, traditional sports and escorts may be poised to a closer relationship even after the COVID-19 crisis is over.
Real-world sports players are going online
Many famous athletes are also becoming involved in the online gaming world, blurring the line between sports and eSports further. For instance, basketball fans were able to tune in to ESPN and bet on an eSports NBA tournament in the first half of April 2020, featuring 16 players including Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton and Kevin Durant. Elsewhere, Spanish soccer player Borja Iglesias streamed a FIFA game to 60,000 people after the La Liga match he was scheduled to play in was canceled, while Fox Sports aired a virtual NFL tournament featuring Michael Vick, among other NFL stars.
Though this interest in gaming amongst sports stars may seem like a sudden reflex to the coronavirus crisis, many experts have noted that the trend started to emerge long before the pandemic took hold. Pittsburgh Steelers footballer JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell are just two athletes who have been streaming video games for some time, while The Verge even commented that eSports leagues and professional sports leagues were looking increasingly similar back in 2018.
Given the digital nature of the modern world, it’s clear to see why eSport is becoming an increasingly popular means of connecting players with their supporters, and an easy way to boost their brand too. Coronavirus has given more players an excuse to get into gaming, and it’s likely the phenomenon will continue to grow over time.
There is huge revenue to be gained from eSports
It’s not just the players and fans that stand to benefit from eSports. The industry is a lucrative gold mine of investment opportunity, and teams are likely to leverage this to their advantage. Sponsorships represent a key channel of revenue for the industry, generating more than $456 million in 2019. This figure was expected to top $700 million in 2020, even before the Covid-19 pandemic swept the globe signaling an upturn in interest in eSports. Advertising revenues, largely generated from content presented to viewers of eSports events on streaming platforms, are another huge money-maker making up 60% of industry revenue.
Beyond brand partnership opportunities, merchandize sales are another key driver of revenue, just as they are in traditional sports. However, while traditional sports teams market themselves largely as a sports team, eSports organizations are taking a different approach. 100 Thieves, for example, describes itself as “a new lifestyle company and eSports organization built at the intersection of competitive gaming, entertainment, and apparel.” Furthermore, unlike traditional sports, merchandise can be both physical and digital in the form of in-game purchases.
Recognizing these new digital revenue channels, many well-established sports teams are now investing time and resources into eSports. The inaugural NBA 2K League, an eSports initiative for professional players of the basketball sim, saw 17 teams take part. The Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves have since taken that number to 21. Meanwhile, in Europe, Dutch football clubs Ajax and PSV Eindhoven have both signed an individual professional FIFA player and a full squad of FIFA eSports professionals.
eSports cater to current consumer preferences
Industries need to adapt to changing consumer behaviors in the digital world. Some of the world’s biggest companies have successfully bridged this gap. Netflix, for example, transformed the way we watch TV by catering to the instant gratification needs of society, while Uber simplified getting from A to B. The sports industry is waiting for its own eureka moment, and many believe eSports are fertile ground for this type of innovation.
In an interview with CNBC, gaming analyst Scott Steinberg explained: “We are reaching a point where the average person probably grew up with gaming in their household. All eyes are on online gaming, and they now have a chance to shine.”
Networks like ESPN and Fox Sports have turned attention to eSports to fill gaps during the coronavirus crisis. However, Laurel Walzak, a professor who specializes in eSports at Ryerson University, argues that the motivation for watching a live sports event is different to that of streaming an eSports game, claiming: “An ESPN broadcast features different camera angles, audio, music, and on-air talent. When it’s sports video games on Twitch, the visuals of the games, players and their hands and eyes matter most.”
Nonetheless, Walzak is optimistic about the future of eSports gaming and its ability to lure new audiences while converting those accustomed to traditional sports. The new generation of sports fans are those that have grown up playing games on Playstation, Xbox and Nintendo consoles, and these fans consider the likes of Fortnite streamer Ninja to be just as heroic as LeBron James, Lionel Messi and other sports superstars. If Fortnite and FIFA can be spoken about in the same way as basketball and baseball, what’s to say professional sports and competitive gamers won’t be?