The pandemic has affected, in one way or another, pretty much everyone. One of the areas that really felt the consequences of strict quarantine regulations was sports. Suddenly, athletes stopped competing, and viewers lost countless hours of entertainment they thought were a given. Sure, weird new trends emerged, but it was eSports that benefited from these unfortunate circumstances. In a pandemic world, anything that was remote and virtual thrived. The video game live-streaming platform Twitch, for example, reported that their February and March 2020 numbers nearly doubled in comparison to those from the same period in 2019. Similarly, Steam snagged 20 million live gamers in March 2020 alone. And the market for consoles? Suffice to say that the Nintendo Switch was sold out in all major retailers well until May of the present year.
As fate would have it, this all happened at a curious inflection point in traditional sports. Not in terms of how they’re played, but how they’re viewed and consumed. In a market currently worth a whopping $23 billion, the broadcast rights for three major leagues (MLB, NFL, and NHL) all became available in 2021. This led to new deals being made, signaling the start of a massive change in the way people approach sports and sports culture.
Spreading out TV rights
First up, the MLB. In May, the league agreed to a partnership with Disney and the previous rights-owner ESPN until the end of the 2028 season. That deal’s worth over $500 million per year and means fewer exclusive games for ESPN (30 instead of 90). In the same token, the NFL decided to spread the goods around, and now 7 different networks and services will run the games. And the NHL? Well, the league’s deal with Turner dictates that they’re planning to ‘pull an Amazon’ (see: NFL and the English Premier League) and bring some games to streaming services, in particular, HBO Max. All these moves showcase a trend, that of traditional models continuing to merge with streaming services. It happened with entertainment, and now it’s happening with the Shangri-La of the traditional television model: sports.
Watching sports now becomes ‘consuming’ sports
The above changes also opened the door to new interactive possibilities in the VR and AR worlds. As devices like the Oculus Quest become more readily available, VR sporting events are moving into the spotlight. For example, the NBA already introduced a VR league pass, which allows fans to watch games from all angles. And during the last World Cup, the BBC released an app with VR access to all 33 matches with commentary and a dashboard filled with live stats. Additionally, AR gives fans other possibilities, like buying merch during highlights, or choosing to view a player’s stats as the game is happening. Think of it like Amazon Prime’s “X-Ray” feature, but for live sports. This is to say, people are looking for interactive experiences. Cue eSports, which are as interactive as it gets and on the brink of creating a global and long-lasting impact.
The rise of the cyberathlete
Tailor-made for a generation born into the tech world, most eSports commonly take the form of organized, multiplayer video game competitions, particularly between (but not limited to) professional players. And it’s precisely in that realm that the sport is making great headway. Organizations are now officially licensing pro gamers, with it emerging as a new profession, that of the cyberathlete. And with it comes an irresistible appeal...
In 2020, the League of Legends Finals was broadcast in 16 languages across 21 platforms and viewed by almost 46 million people. In fact, it drew over 1 billion hours of competition watched over the course of the entire tournament. The year before that, the same competition drew more views than the Super Bowl. Equally impressive, the media coverage of eSports is rising exponentially, with Turner and ESPN spearheading those efforts by televising and streaming various competitions (also through Twitch and YouTube). Many believe it’s only a matter of time before eSports drops its denominational “e.” Even the International Olympic Committee got on board, having recently hosted a virtual eSports event ahead of the recent Tokyo Games.
One of the key players in this movement is Team Fnatic. The professional organization based in London won the first-ever League of Legends World Championship in 2011 and holds the record for the most Championship Series split titles. The increasing acceptance of video games as a sport, and the worldwide Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Counter-Strike phenomena, help explain the rise of a new way of living, one that prefers digital activity over real ones.
The participation in traditional sports among teens has been on a steady decline in the past decade, which has only been accentuated by the pandemic. And the younger generations aren’t watching sports on TV either. However, they are spending more time playing video games, often ranging between four and six hours after school. As a consequence of this ongoing trend, at least seven state high schools are already offering eSports at a varsity level. And many that don’t, still run eSports tournaments with prizes that include scholarship money to 115 colleges with fielding eSports teams. This shows that the eSports money spigot is just starting to open to full blast, leaving the door wide open for streaming services to expand their ever-growing base of subscribers.
The eSports mania around the world is leading to the rise of Game-fluencers (gamer influencers), which major brands like Nike and Adidas use to engage with growing audiences. Game-fluencers can earn millions playing Fortnite, Call of Duty, Dota, and League of Legends, and streaming their gameplay through platforms like Twitch and Mixer. In August 2019, Fortnite megastar Tyler Blevins, aka Ninja, entered a multi-year partnership with Adidas for an undisclosed amount. Ninja had already partnered up with UberEats and Samsung, in an ad promoting #TeamGalaxy. Also in 2019, Nike signed a deal to make jerseys for the League of Legends Pro League in China, while Champion and K-Swiss signed apparel deals with individual teams and players. Just like in non-virtual sports. Twitch played a crucial role in bringing the influence of gamers to the forefront. Despite competition from Mixer and YouTube, the streaming platform is still the most popular in the field, having a market share of 67% content hours watched and 90% of content streamed. Perhaps most impressively, Twitch reaches 50% of millennial males in the U.S. alone, an impossible-to-ignore statistic.
An unstoppable force
Newzoo estimates that by 2023 the number of eSports viewers will grow to 646 million worldwide. While that doesn’t come exactly close to the 4 billion viewers raked in by soccer and the billion viewers by cricket (yes, really!), eSports are a much more recent phenomena and showcase unprecedented growth. As technology continues to merge different areas of entertainment and the lines between sports and video games get increasingly blurred, it’s clear that eSports will continue to cement its position in mainstream culture.