Nearly two months ago to the day, on a Sunday afternoon typically reserved for watching whatever Premier League fixture presented to me by Sky, I found myself robotically flicking through the television channels before stumbling across live coverage of Formula One’s first Esports Virtual Grand Prix.
Given the industry SportsPro covers, I felt obliged to give it a chance.
Around 15 minutes passed before my previously unsuspecting father, also sat in the room at the time, realised that we were being duped. “Surely this can’t be happening now,” he exclaimed, prompting me to explain that the race unfolding before our eyes was in fact a virtual manifestation of the Bahrain Grand Prix that should have been happening that weekend.
Visibly taken aback, it was around this point that my father lost interest, perhaps feeling slightly embarrassed that realistic graphics and familiar commentary had conned him into spending a quarter of an hour watching people play video games. It would be safe to assume that a middle-aged man isn’t high on competitive gaming’s hit list in terms of target audience, but similar scenarios have likely been occurring in other households after traditional sporting events disappeared from our screens due to the coronavirus.
Indeed, the widely floated narrative since all of this started has been that esports can step into the content gap vacated by live sports. Like an up-and-coming academy prospect vigorously going through his touchline stretches in the manager’s eyeline, competitive gaming had finally got the nod to replace the elder statesman – temporarily, at least - and show a wider audience why people have been talking about it. And the general perception was that a time of crisis for traditional sports might inadvertently create an opportunity we would look back on as a breakthrough moment for its online counterpart.
But now, with some sports leagues and competitions slowly returning to action – and perhaps sooner than we might have anticipated - it feels pertinent to ask whether we will.
First of all it is worth pointing out that esports has in the past set itself lofty expectations to live up to. Tied to promises of billion-dollar revenues and mammoth digital audiences, it is also true that some competitive gaming companies still aren’t turning a profit. Therefore any talk of this being a watershed moment for the industry should rightly be viewed with caution.
However, there can be no debating some of the numbers in recent weeks. Twitch, Amazon’s popular video game streaming platform, saw a 50 per cent surge in hours watched between March and April, according Arsenal.gg data. Twitter revealed that the final two weeks of March brought with them 71 per cent more esports-related conversations on the social media site compared to the first half of the month. Publishers such as Activision Blizzard and Tencent, owner of Riot Games, have credited an increase in gaming during the pandemic for major uplifts in their Q1 revenues.
Meanwhile, it would probably be quicker to make a list of sports properties that haven’t launched esports competitions during the shutdown than one of those that have. US stock car racing’s eNascar iRacing series had delivered broadcast partner Fox an average audience in excess of 1.1 million viewers through its first five races; La Liga said its charity FIFA 20 Challenge in March roped in more than one million fans across various online and broadcast platforms.
But that isn’t to say that esports has been immune from the impact of Covid-19. With social gatherings banned around the world, its most recognisable tournaments have been forced to switch to online formats, including Activision’s Call of Duty and Overwatch franchise leagues, as well as various League of Legends competitions run by Riot Games. Competitive gaming is said to be less reliant on gameday income for its revenues, making significantly more from sponsorship and media rights deals, but mega events such as last year’s US$30 million Fortnite World Cup – of which the 2020 edition has been cancelled – have played a key role in helping it gain mainstream attention.
Speaking to SportsPro’s Ed Dixon earlier this month, John Clarke, the new chief executive of London-based esports business Gfinity, acknowledged as much. “Generally, it’s very challenging times that we’re all going through,” he said. “If you’re involved in large scale live events in the esports environment I think you’re facing exactly the same challenges that traditional sport faces.”
Nascar's iRacing Series proved popular but real-life races are now back underway
And while the figures have been impressive, the numbers are somewhat skewed by the fact that alternatives have been in short supply. It is also worth considering that many fans will have been tuning in to keep up with the likes of Sergio Aguero and Charles Leclerc during the hiatus. Esports has undoubtedly proved a valuable marketing tool for many leagues and their athletes throughout lockdown, but it is also true the audiences will likely follow those stars back to their normal competitive environment.
If the past two months truly have opened new doors for the esports industry, it will be reflected in those competitions that make up its ecosystem year-round. Major TV networks have afforded unprecedented exposure in the form of primetime slots, but those will soon become cluttered as sports rush to complete or even start their seasons. In the US, for example, ESPN has not committed to showing the NBA 2K League beyond 19th May, while Brad Zager, an executive producer at Fox Sports, recently told the Washington Post that scheduling gaps currently occupied by gaming “will be filled with sports” when they return.
In some ways the live entertainment offered by esports has been viewed as better than nothing – in much the same way that the Bundesliga and Nascar reappearing behind closed doors has been heralded as more favourable than no resumption at all. The returning round of fixtures for German soccer’s top flight delivered record domestic and international viewing figures; Nascar’s comeback at Darlington Raceway was watched by nearly six times as many people had been tuning in for the stock car racing organisation’s esports series. The audiences are transitioning back, and it won’t be long before we know if competitive gaming has done enough to convince people to stick around.
The coming weeks will see even more sports – in whatever form - vying to be that better-than-nothing option. Time will determine whether esports will continue to be one of them or if it was simply filling in, maybe even reminding people of what they were missing, before taking a place back on the bench.