As the world of traditional sports has ground to halt, esports has garnered much media attention, certainly in respect of those esports that operate within the purview of traditional sports. The esports industry was already thriving before the pandemic, attracting billions of pounds in revenues and huge viewing audiences. With the world on lockdown and most of us staying at home, many have turned to online gaming as a way to pass the time.
It is not entirely correct to say that simply because esports can be conducted online it is unaffected by the pandemic. While it is true that some competitions have found new life, and more people are themselves playing online, live events also form a big part of the professional esports sector and, in this way, esports is not immune from the effects of COVID-19.
TRADITIONAL SPORTS – ESPORTS OPPORTUNITIES
There are a number of different ecosystems which make up the esports sector, but a crude division can be identified between esports that follow ‘traditional’ sport (e.g. FIFA) and ‘non-traditional’ sport (more of which below).
When traditional sport tries it hand at esports, the viewership figures often pale in comparison to the major esports, which have no connection to traditional sports. There is a spectrum here, with sports like football at one end (the first ePremier League Invitational drew 52,000 viewers at its peak) and racing sports at the other (the eNASCAR Series drew more than 1.3 million TV viewers).
This crisis has seen the traditional sporting world lean on its esports outlets a little more than usual. That is not to say that traditional sports organisers have ignored the rise of esports previously, many of whom, such as the Premier League (the ePremier League), the NBA (the NBA 2K League), and F1 (Esports Series) have been investing in esports ventures since at least 2017. To put the ‘traditional’ vs ‘non-traditional’ esports picture in context it has been reported that the peak viewer count for FIFA’s eWorld Cup was 244,000, by comparison to millions for the League of Legends World Championship (‘LoL Worlds’) in 2019.
The crisis has called for a need to plug the immediate gap in engagement between traditional sports fans and their sport of choice, with the most obvious starting point being the traditional sports stars trying their hand at esports competitions for the enjoyment of fans at home. The Premier League took the opportunity to launch the ePremier League Invitational, which saw Diego Jota beat Trent Alexander-Arnold in the final to take the crown. To keep some momentum going, the Premier League launched a second edition to take place between 5-9 May 2020.
F1 also launched its Virtual Grand Prix Series, which featured current F1 drivers, with the aim of allowing fans to continue enjoying Formula 1 during the enforced break. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc has shown himself to be quite the virtual star, however it was Alex Albon of Red Bull that won the most recent race at ‘Interlagos’.
Many assume that the pandemic heralds a golden era for esports, however this underplays the success of esports over the last five to ten years and the scale of the live events associated with the top esports. It is important to understand that the most popular esports have no connection to traditional sports (e.g. multiplayer online battle arena games such as ‘League of Legends’ (‘LoL’) or first person shooters like ‘Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’ (‘CS:GO’)). At the top level of these ecosystems, teams compete in live tournaments, held in huge arenas with thousands of spectators watching on.
One of the most anticipated events in the esports calendar is the LoL Worlds. This is truly a massive event, with viewing numbers surpassing even the Super Bowl (in 2018 it was estimated that 100 million viewers watched the LoL Worlds, compared to 98 million viewers for the Super Bowl LII). The latest instalment, the 2019 LoL Worlds, was no different. For the tenth anniversary of the game itself, qualifying teams battled it out in Berlin, Madrid and Paris over 5 weeks before reaching the finals at the AccroHotels Arena in Paris. The final match was broadcast in 16 different languages and peaked at 44 million concurrent viewers.
These events are multi-faceted and are filled with sponsors, interactive experiences, arts and culture. The sponsorship activity planned for the 2019 LoL Worlds was spearheaded by MasterCard, with the company creating a ‘fan zone’ with booths hosting various activities, such as viewing parties and meet and greets. Alienware, an endemic sponsor, showcased their gaming stations where fans could test out their newest products while AXE put on an interactive experience where fans could be turned into a 3D scanned version of themselves and inserted into a customised video. Musical performances are also incredibly popular. Opening ceremonies for some of the live events are high production affairs. For example, during the 2019 LoL Worlds opening ceremony, a hip-hop collective performed alongside holograms of game characters , blurring the line between reality and the virtual world of the game. The hologram characters’ outfits were even designed by Louis Vuitton and ordinary LoL players were then able to unlock the ‘skins’ (the outfits) in their own game.
The effects of the pandemic and the ubiquitous ban on large gatherings has meant that many of these events will not be able to take place as planned. Some of the most anticipated events have already been cancelled, such as the 2020 Pokémon World Championships (‘Pokémon W.C.’), which was due to take place in August in London. The 2019 Pokémon W.C. championship was held in Washington D.C. and was attended by over 8,000 people. One of the most anticipated aspects of every Pokémon W.C. is the offering of an exclusive line of rare Pokémon merchandise available at the event’s stores. For the Pokémon W.C., players spend the year accruing qualifying championship points in order to be invited to the Pokémon W.C. Sadly for Pokemon fans, all point-accruing events have been cancelled and all points already accrued will be transferred to the 2021 championship.
Other events have been moved online. For example, one of the largest CS:GO events of the year, the ESL One Cologne, will go ahead, but without a live audience. This event is run by ESL, a company that provides event management advertising and television production. ESL One Cologne is one of ESL’s most important and most attended annual events, with tickets selling out every year. In its statement, ESL assured fans that tickets already purchased will remain valid for the 2021 editions, but that fans will also have some refund options depending on point of purchase.
Offline revenue streams for esports competition organisers – through ticket sales, merchandising and sponsor activity – are subject to the same stresses as those that organisers of traditional sports and other event organisers face. By way of example, the 2019 Fortnite World Cup, held at New York’s Arthur Ashe stadium with a top prize of $3 million up for grabs, resulted in $5 million of income from ticket sales alone.
When the events are moved online, cancelled or postponed, these revenue streams will be reduced if not extinguished completely. This consequence of the pandemic should not to be ignored and its effects can already be felt. For example, Newzoo, a market insights and analytics company focused on esports, revised downwards the estimated revenues expected to be generated by esports during 2020, from $1,100.1 million to $1,059.3 million, directly as a result of events being cancelled, postponed or moved online. Newzoo also revised the 2020 forecast for merchandise and tickets downward from $121.7 million to $106.5 million and media rights and sponsorship forecasts from $185.4 million to $176.2 million and $636.9 million to $614.9 million respectively.
It is fair to say that esports has been on a trajectory of exponential growth for many years now. Although is not immune from the effects of the pandemic as a sector, it is certainly less affected than other traditional sports and, in some cases, has seized opportunities to gain mainstream publicity.
That being said, it is also clear that the most popular esports also benefit greatly from the spectacle of the live event, and the stakeholders involved will inevitably suffer as a result of reduced offline revenue streams. The lasting effects on the growth of the sector will depend, as with everything else, on how governments respond to the pandemic and ultimately, whatever is in store for the global economy.