Once a niche interest with a cult following, the eSports market is now a worldwide phenomenon, expected to be worth $1.5bn by 2023. And amidst the current coronavirus crisis, which has seen all professional sports grind to a halt, eSports is gaining attention from those in need of some real-time competitive activity to fill the void. Existing fans are also upping the hours they devote to online games and competitions while the world is in lockdown.
However, rather than acting as a mere stopgap until live sporting events resume, recent events suggest the eSports surge could be anything but temporary.
eSports is drawing in the viewers
eSports had successfully attracted significant attention even before the coronavirus outbreak took hold. Back in December 2019, Business Insider estimated that total eSports viewership would grow at a 9% compound annual rate between 2019 and 2023, from 454 million to 646 million spectators. However, these figures have become even more impressive since the cancellation of professional sporting events. Twitch, by far the most popular streaming platform for eSports, was said to have experienced a 31% increase in viewership during March 2020. Meanwhile, eSports organizations Team Liquid and G2 have reported a viewership boost of 30% and 20% respectively. Steve Arhancet, owner of Team Liquid, told TIME that this surge was higher than “any month […] in company history.”
It is perhaps unsurprising how easily eSports has adapted to the global crisis compared to other sports, given that the activity is, for the most part, pursued from the comfort of home. However, coronavirus has impacted the industry in a physical way to some degree, as live events held in real-life stadiums, like the Play! Pokémon North American International Championship, have had to be cancelled. Luckily, as people can still play and watch remotely, the sector has continued to thrive. “Now what you’re seeing is online tournaments still happening, people competing,” Phelan Hill, a senior consultant at Nielsen Sports, told SportsPro. “If anything, it’s driving up audience numbers and there’s a greater level of engagement. More so than ever, eSports is coming to the forefront.”
eSports revenue is enticing other sectors
As the power of eSports continues to grow, many industries are attempting to cash in on its success. One example is the gambling sector. Since 1992, sports betting had been forbidden in virtually all US states until a change in legislation in May 2018, which led many states to legalize the activity, encouraging huge numbers of people to get involved again. As Sports Intel have noted: “Betting on the NFL is as old as the game itself, but now, with the 2018 US Supreme Court ruling and more and more states allowing for legalized sports gambling, the ability to wager on an NFL game is easier and more exciting than ever before.”
Now, bookmakers are keen to benefit from the rise of eSports by giving customers a chance to bet on them as well. A recent survey predicted that global eSports gambling revenue will double from $7bn in 2019 to $14bn in 2020 “as gamblers seek new avenues for betting during the COVID-19 crisis”. The same survey revealed that 36% of bettors had wagered on eSports in the last three months, while 30% of these had only started doing so within the last month.
Advertisers have also realized that eSports’ popularity could provide them with plentiful opportunities. For example, in April 2020, BMW moved into eSports, announcing planned advertising partnerships with five organizations from the US, UK, Germany, China and South Korea. Stefan Ponikva, head of BMW Brand Experience Shows & Events, pointed out that this is a way to bring their brand in front of a new audience: “The younger generation, being born digital-first, doesn’t really care about TV or traditional advertising. eSports is our tool to reach them.” BMW clearly isn’t the only business noticing this marketing potential, as advertising is expected to be the largest source of eSports revenue between 2020 and 2025.
Traditional sports are going virtual
Rather than forgoing competitive sport altogether, real-life sports stars are turning their attention to the virtual world instead. From the NBA 2k Players Tournament to online Formula One and NASCAR races, all kinds of sports are using digital practices to keep them connected to the rest of the world. Thousands of viewers have tuned in to watch sporting greats go head-to-head in the virtual sphere, with the events also raising money for great causes. For example, 170,000 fans tuned in to watch Real Madrid soccer player Marco Asensio beat Aitor Ruibal of Leganés to win the La Liga Fifa tournament. The competition also raised €140,000 ($151,000) for charities dedicated to fighting COVID-19.
“Our goal is to stay connected and engaged with NBA fans during this time, and this was a great opportunity to bring basketball back into their homes,” said Matt Holt, the NBA’s senior vice president of global partnerships, of April’s tournament. Following a positive reception to the event, he also told the LA Times that more online games were in the pipeline “regardless if we’re in the current situation or if we have live sports back.”
It certainly seems like traditional sports stars may continue playing eSports even after the current crisis has passed, with broadcasters showing extra interest. “eSports has been out there for years, but because of live sports, there weren’t any opportunities to take more chances and see what people connected with,” Brad Zager, executive producer, executive VP and head of production and operations at Fox Sports, told Multichannel News. “There was no proof that eSports would either do well or not so well. Now that live sports has disappeared, we have an opportunity to find out.” Given how well this merger between the real-world and the virtual world has been received so far, mainstream eSports look like it could be here to stay.
Author Bio: Syna Smith is a chief editor of Business usa today. She has also good experience in digital marketing.