With one or two rare exceptions such as the Belarus Premier League, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has meant a complete shut down of professional sport around the world. After a period of delay in which many sports organisations attempted to battle on, eventually, all sports were forced to accept the inevitable and close down their operations for the safety of players and spectators.
The full effects of this closedown won’t be known for some time. At this stage, for example, we don’t know when or whether the ongoing 2019-20 football seasons will be finished. The Olympics and the European Championships have already been postponed, and the cost in terms of jobs and revenue could be enormous, even if professional sport manages to resume at some point this summer.
But there is one corner of the sports world that appears not only to be surviving the lockdown, but actually thriving in it. Esports has been a growing industry for many years, but the global shut down of sport has seen it come into its own. It represents the ideal junction between gaming fans and sports fans, and the widespread enforced social isolation has seen a boom in both gaming and esports
At the end of March, popular game streaming service Twitch reported a 15% rise in usage, while game marketplace Steam has registered record numbers of users. Mainstream sports have even tried to get a little of the esports action. Formula One is staging a series of virtual Grand Prix throughout the rest of the season, which will be streamed on both Youtube and Switch.
It wouldn’t be completely accurate to say that esports hasn’t been affected. A number of tournaments including Dota 2’s ESL One Los Angeles and ESL Birmingham have moved online, while the first CS:GO Major of the year has been postponed, with a doubling of the autumn Major’s prize money as compensation. But by and large, the esports schedule has been able to continue.
The additional exposure will be welcomed by those involved in esports, but it is worth noting that the sport was already thriving. Last year’s big Dota 2 tournament, The International, had a staggering prize pool of $34,000,000, and there has been a proliferation of tournaments and leagues in recent years, with a wave of popular battle royale games such as Fortnite driving new interest.
Another effect of the pandemic is likely to be an increasing emphasis on esports betting on the part of bookmakers. Prior to the shutdown of sport around the world, it had been estimated that by the end of 2020, around $13 billion would be wagered on esports globally. Bookmakers, deprived of almost all of the sports content that usually drives their business, have been moving into esports betting in a big way, and sports betting apps that also include esports as part of their portfolio are proving popular.
Until now, mainstream sports media, like traditional sports betting companies, had largely overlooked esports, but they are now having to adapt quickly and provide coverage of events, teams, and players that they had barely talked about since the first esports tournaments launched in the mid-2000s.
The other factor driving increased esports coverage is the aging of the esports audience. The young millennials who got into esports in the 2000s and 2010s are now in their 20s and 30s and have the income to spend on streaming services, betting, merchandise, and tickets. This is, in turn, will drive the interest of more companies seeking new revenue streams during the current economic uncertainty. The net effect could well be that, once the pandemic and the associated shutdown is over, esports will have attained a new status and begun to fulfill its promise as the sport of the future.