Up until relatively recently, ‘e-sports’ was very much a minority pursuit. Outside the cyber paradise of South Korea, the idea that enough people might be interested in watching competitive gaming to make it into a professional sport would have seemed quixotic to the general public, at best. However, the last decade has seen momentous changes. No longer confined to a peninsula on the tip of East Asia, e-sports have spread rapidly across the globe. Where Starcraft: Broodwar and its predecessor Starcraft 2 blazed a trail in setting up competitive tournaments, titles such as League of Legends, DOTA 2, FIFA, Overwatch and Counter-Strike have all followed suits with professional scenes to varying degrees of success. The popularity of streaming services such as Twitch has further boosted its popularity.
The earning potential, while not quite rivalling Premier League heights yet, is enough to induce significant envy, with over 80 players having each amassed career prize money of over $1 million dollars. DOTA 2-star Jordan ‘NOtail’ Sundstein has won just shy of $12 million over the course of his career. Such a sum would seem more than sufficient to make ambitious students keen to earn a fortune reconsider their Goldman Sachs applications and invest in a shiny new gaming PC.
The outbreak of Covid-19 presents a unique opportunity for e-sports. Physical proximity between players is not required, meaning leagues can continue while (outside of Belarus) almost every sporting competition has been cancelled. That millions across the world have suddenly found themselves with considerably more free time and no way to spend it outside has further made the market ripe for a surge in the viewing of competitive gaming.
Evidence that e-sports is profiting from the lockdown is mounting, Twitch reported an increase in audience numbers of 33% in March. YouTube Gaming has seen 15% more viewers in March than February, further underlining e-sports appeal at this time. The persistence of Covid-19 related distancing measures through April is likely to continue this surge.
Traditional sports have taken advantage of the appeal that e-sports offer under such unusual circumstances. Formula One released plans to launch a simulated racing series. The announcement of ‘Virtual Grand Prix Series’ has indicated that its top drivers will be involved. NASCAR and Supercars Championships have announced similar technologically advanced plans to ensure the action continues in spite of the quarantine.
While e-sports does have a huge advantage over its more traditional rivals, it has not been fully inoculated against Covid-19. Many e-sports leagues feature competitions held inside large arenas, broadcasting to thousands of fans on huge screens of live audiences. Several major events have had to move online only, depriving enthusiasts of the chance to watch the action in the flesh. The Overwatch League has postponed matches for March and April to give time for rescheduling and DOTA 2 ESL One Tournaments have scrapped live audiences. Tournaments constitute an important revenue stream for e-sports so in spite of the opportunity for an enhanced market share, it may struggle to recoup the financial benefits of hosting such events. As a fairly nascent industry, it doesn’t boast the financial stability the Premier League has amassed in it’s 28-year history.
Covid-19 presents a unique opportunity for e-sports. While it’s revenue streams may come under some threat from an absence of in person audiences, the lack of competition from traditional sports provides a huge gap in the market, of which the online gaming market will aim to seize a decent portion.
Image Rights: Jakob Wells via Wikimedia Commons