No matter where you are in the world, if you’re a sports fan your world is undoubtedly lacking at the moment. Covid-19 has thrown sporting leagues everywhere into disarray. In the US, the NBA and NHL leagues have been put on hold while the MLB season started without a ball being pitched. Football (soccer) has come to an almost global halt, saving that the leagues of Nicaragua
. EURO 2020 and the 2020 Olympics are now planned to take place in 2021 and Wimbledon has been cancelled for the first time since World War Two. Sport has rightly been paused but left a hole in many people’s hearts during a time when they need filling the most.
But there’s one form of sports that has the potential to carry on in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the social distancing measures that many of us find ourselves under. Esports - competitive gaming between professional gamers - is possible to take place from the comfort of competitors’ homes and the streaming of such events can be enjoyed by viewers online. It’s important to note that esports isn’t immune to the current situation. Live tournaments are a huge part of the industry - in 2019 the first ever Fortnite World Cup was held in New York in front of a sold out Arthur Ashe Stadium, which hosts the US Open. The top prize was $3 million. Numerous live tournaments have been cancelled or postponed, which is a blow as it looks to break out of its niche.
But, as Dan Salkey, a strategist at UK agency Dark Horses tells me, “the disruption esports face is a fraction of what traditional sports are contending with”. Qualifiers for tournaments have been a major part of esports for some time, while smaller tournaments with a purely online presence are also common.
What’s more, gaming numbers are unsurprisingly up. People have a lot more time to kill and video games are an engaging way to shut our minds away from reality. People are watching people play video games more too. Twitch, the live streaming platform for gamers, experienced a 31% rise in viewers in March, according to TwitchTracker
. “When you are practicing something a lot - like gamers are doing - you always want to know how the pros are doing and fairing,” says Claudio Lima, the chief creative officer at Cheil Brazil and a self-confessed video game nut
But can esports fill the sporting void? While there are obvious opportunities for the industry it’s not as simple as hosting competitions online between people sitting in their homes. David Chen leads global esports partnerships for Alienware, the premier gaming brand of Dell. He acknowledges that while gaming numbers are up, he hasn’t really seen esports leagues adapt and overcome current issues as quickly as people might think. “There are still legitimate logistical concerns around how some of these leagues can properly continue to operate in light of the current social-distancing and work-from-home guidelines,” he says. “Most of the top leagues, up until a few weeks ago, were still holding live in-person matches held in a studio with hundreds, if not thousands, of fans on-site, watching a broadcast that was put on by teams of dozens, if not hundreds, of league staff and producers. While the digital nature of esports has allowed some leagues to continue and transition to online-only matches, there is still a lot of adaptation and improvisation in play for most.” He’s full of positivity for the ones that did manage to adapt though, and notes the opportunities available for being pretty much the only ‘sports’ happening in the world right now. “That is pretty exciting,” he says. As an example, gaming leagues such as Overwatch and the League of Legends’ European and American leagues have managed to move to an online only broadcast after a short hiatus.
Breaking out of the niche
According to a 2019 Year in Review piece by Riot Games
, the creators of League of Legends, the League Of Legends Championship Series is now America’s third most popular sporting league. Given the ubiquity of football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey in the country, that’s a startling piece of data. Despite numbers like that it’s fair to say that esports still operate within somewhat of a niche, outside of the established sporting culture. Dan from Dark Horses believes that it’s just a matter of time before it’s part of that mainstream and even an Olympic sport. While the industry has been gradually breaking into the mainstream prior to the world's current situation, he also says that “Covid-19 will act as a catalyst for that transformation”.
“The next few months will bring thousands of new fans into the space,” he adds. “This year will have a huge impact on our lives forever. Post pandemic, more people will work virtually, more people will connect virtually with friends and more people will compete and spectate virtually through esports. It’s hard to think of anything that could be more effective at helping esports make the transition from niche subculture to mainstream culture.”
The natural evolutionary jump into the mainstream for any sport is a deal that sees them as part of primetime viewing on major sporting broadcasters. In the UK, Sky Sports has dipped its toe into the water by showing several big finals including the Fortnite World Cup, FIFA eWorld Cup Final and League of Legends Worlds Final but in more of a token fashion than a statement of intention. “Esports viewership has been growing over the past several years, while many traditional sports have seen declines in viewership,” says Jeff Danley, director of innovation and partnerships at VMLY&R. “Esports has been seen as a niche, however the viewership numbers rival traditional sports. I believe we will see broadcast networks take a chance on eSports, particularly as their regular programming becomes scarce. Potential barriers could include broadcast rights, as most eSports are live streamed on Twitch or YouTube gaming.” Jeff also notes that the core esports audience - GenZ and younger - consume most of their content online anyway, away from traditional television.
In the US, David is already seeing some interest pick up in terms of major sports TV networks looking to pivot into esports content to fill their broadcast schedules with digital equivalents of football, basketball or racing. He ponders whether this is an opportunity more generally to reconsider whether some sports are in fact better consumed digitally. “Is that enough to convince fans that we shouldn’t be wasting gas on real cars, releasing real vehicle emissions, and sometimes even putting drivers at real risk of death – if we could get nearly close enough via virtual racing?”
However he is a little concerned about the actual product that can be screened on these channels at the moment. “The broadcast product that many mainstream viewers are seeing for the first time right now is not a great onboarding point into the esport,” he says. “Most of these leagues are running on skeleton production crews and airing a product that is only a small portion of their typical capabilities and content. Even if these leagues wanted to fine-tune their approach and create content that can make their esport more appealing to a new, unfamiliar viewer, they would likely be getting new eyeballs at a time where the esports showrunners feel most limited and saddled by the current challenges due to Covid-19.”
Another gateway into the mainstream sporting agenda is gambling. The opportunity to bet on the outcome of a sporting event can whet the appetite of many a casual bystander and, with the sporting calendar on hold, gamblers have next to nothing to place their money on. Fanduel, a US betting site, entered the esports space in 2019 but it’s still not par for the course. Dan from Dark Horses notes that, in the UK at least, many bookmakers are wary of committing to esports gambling because the odds are so difficult to calculate due to a comprehensive lack of data. “Ironically for such a future-facing sport there's no Opta of esports just yet,” he says. “But now may be the time that some bookmakers are forced to take that plunge and invest in the space which could legitimise it. They’ll be starting at a disadvantage to endemic bookmakers like Unikrn and Luck Box as well as non-endemic bookmaker Betway who already have a strong foothold in esports.”
Claudio agrees, saying that he can see betting websites playing a role in the push for esports to move to more mainstream broadcasters. “Betting websites that become huge advertisers everywhere in the world, they will see this as an opportunity and add some pressure for it to be televised. Plus you have games of almost all types and styles so you can offer a great amount of options for people with different tastes in sports, from football, fighting, team sports, etc.”
David adds that he thinks “this will definitely be a key time that will help bridge esports acceptance into the realm of gambling and online gambling”. He’s already seen it to some degree in the world of the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, which has also appeared on more gaming-endemic gambling platforms. “But the introduction of allowing these digital competitions to be wagered on, officially and legally by Vegas, is bound to open up new interest and dollars,” he says. “While traditional sports are on pause, there are probably plenty of bettors who just want some betting action and are anxious to find something new – whether they truly understand the game thoroughly or not. That level of greed, in my opinion, is very likely to bring some additional mainstream attention and eyeballs into the esports scene.”
Opportunities for brands
As well as whetting the appetites of gamblers, a shift into a more mainstream place will surely also prove bountiful for marketers. Understandably, many brands and agencies are wary of appearing too noisy in the current climate. As Claudio tells me, “we are in a super delicate moment to see anything from a brand/agency perspective because it's too easy to be seen as opportunistic”. He believes that the main thing to do right now as a marketer is to either help in some way, through donations, teaching or supporting communities, or simply trying to sell a product because of its features and benefits - rather than because of the circumstances. “So, regarding gaming and esports, the best thing right now is to 1) learn about the industry and its variables, and 2) find something that matches your brand purpose and story and go for it. There are tons of teams and players needing sponsorship and events that can happen online and entertain a big number of consumers.”
Dan warns that brands shouldn’t expect any cut-price partnerships to come from the situation - esports organisations and entities will know what they’re worth now more so than ever. Him and the team at Dark Horses have been longtime flag wavers for the untapped potential and “frankly undervalued return on investment of esports that a brand who authentically plays in the space can reap the reward of. The demographic of the esports audience is young, affluent and receptive to sponsorship - a stark difference to the demographic of football on the terraces in the 80s/90s for instance.”
Thinking to the now, he sees the opportunity in the hands of brand managers who hold extra clout with regards to convincing key stakeholders to take a punt on esports as a marketing tool. “Esports teams, publishers and tournament organisers are generally more flexible than traditional rights holders and there’s plenty of ‘toe-dipping’ partnership/activation options, with now being the ideal time for brands to leverage them,” he believes.
Jeff from VMLY&R nods to the opportunities for brands within the casual gaming world on top of esports. “Gamers are coming together for more than competition, they are escaping reality and exploring virtual worlds together in video games… From a brand and agency perspective, bringing people together for a shared experience can be a good thing,” he says. “With record numbers of people playing video games and tuning into Twitch channels, right now is a great opportunity to connect with customers who may also be game players. As with any foray into gaming, brands need an authentic way in. Their participation must be purposeful.”
One authentic example that Jeff gives is the US Navy’s accelerated plans in March to connect with gamers of Twitch. By playing games like Call of Duty and interacting with viewers on Twitch, the Navy has an opportunity to have conversations about their working life and use it as a potential recruitment tool. What’s more, several highly anticipated games have launched since the onset of Covid-19, such as Doom Eternal and Animal Crossing. Jeff notes how Animal Crossing: New Horizons has quickly become a favoured pastime of many people during quarantine thanks to its playful nature and players’ opportunity to express their creativity with their in-game avatars and the way that each of them decorate their islands. “Many of the features in the game take time to evolve, such as growing a garden,” he says. “This gives players something to look forward to each day offering a sense of accomplishment and positivity at a time of uncertainty. US fast food chain, Wendy’s, successfully jumped on this opportunity, and streamed Animal Crossing: New Horizons across Twitch to promote its new free delivery service
In conclusion, David asks the question of whether esports should continue as normal as possible, even if they can do. The narrative goes that the industry should be able to weather the Covid-19 storm much better than traditional sports. “While that is true to some degree, I think everyone is being reasonably cautious as they attempt to identify how to best tell this story,” he says. “There is still a human factor at play that some people aren’t quite discussing. While esports can go on, some are asking ‘should they go on?’.
“There are still plenty of pro players who are being asked to compete, while they are thousands of miles from home and quite literally unable to stop and go back home to be with their families. There are production staff that are leaving their homes and risking their health to make these broadcasts happen for the sake of ensuring that the show can go on. There are lots of layers to this discussion as esports might be considered a luxury and entertainment to most, and to celebrate it in the face of all this turmoil and uncertainty could be viewed as a bit tone-deaf.”