If no one can play sports, why not simulate them? That’s the narrative dominating the athletic press cycle right now; that once you’re bored watching archive matches and documentaries, then video game recreations, played online from your own home, are a worthy substitute.
But what about the “core esports,” i.e. shooters and strategy titles? During this long period of isolation, these games will be the most serious sporting events in the world, which could have long-lasting implications once the entertainment world finds its new normal.
Everything from music to meditation classes have embraced livestreaming, and for esports, this is home territory. Competitive video gaming has always been social, but much of the experience—grinding ladder rankings or playing in online tournaments—is as solitary as running or cycling.
Before I outline the potential benefits for esports during this time, let me be clear: the industry won’t get through this pandemic unscathed. Far from it. Layoffs, staff cuts, and job hiring freezes are inevitable, especially as companies face liquidity shortages. Although some of the more well-funded teams can throw safety nets, mid-tier teams are already starting to crumble under the weight of a global market in free fall.
For esports as a whole, these alone will be the initial consequences:
Loss of Live Events: This is a challenging prospect especially for the Activision Blizzard esports leagues, which were betting on homestand revenue and local markets as their core product moving forward. As I outlined in my Intel Extreme Master Katowice retrospective, this is also bad for events that were industry leaders in terms of consumer-based revenue.
Loss of Production Quality: Fans will be forgiving during this period when it comes to broadcast quality, but the truth is no organizer will keep these online remote-setups once they no longer have to. The return of the League of Legends European Championship (LEC) was troubled by frequent pauses and problems. Even with a studio, these piece-meal broadcasts are a nightmare to manage. The quality will become more stable over time, but most players, observers, and fans know full well that a LAN setup is best from a gameplay perspective.
Disruption to Industry Development: Even tournaments/leagues that aren’t canceled entirely have had to adjust their plans. The ESL Pro League essentially regressed to where it was in 2018, while leagues with years of live shows, like the LEC or the North American League of Legends Championship Series (LCS), had to hold back their debut events in all new markets. The Intel World Open; the very first esports event parallel to the Olympics, will now be played a year before the actual Tokyo games.
One thing we don’t know yet is to what extent the loss of live events and diminished business will affect company prospects, especially smaller esport startups. Modern Times Group, the parent company of both digital festival company DreamHack and esports events company ESL, now expects YoY revenues for esports operations to drop 35-45% for H1 2020, with a 25% revenue loss for the first quarter alone.
Esports is still a high growth, low reward industry, so how will investors react? Will we see companies merge to stay afloat? When will we reach a “normal” that allows companies to continue fundraising? The Esports Observer is exploring these questions, and we hope to be able to bring our readers answers in the coming weeks.
Esports as an industry will inevitably take a hit from COVID-19 in terms of lost event revenue and momentum, but the medium of live gaming entertainment could emerge from this blackout brighter than ever.
Online matches may be sub-par in production quality, but they still carry the highest stakes at a time when all other sports have gone dark. This means ongoing work for teams and players, casting talent, and crew. It also provides fresh, daily content for esports press and media, whereas sports outlets are relying on COVID-19 reaction pieces or season/career retrospectives.
Esports and live gaming are also not affected by changes to scheduled programming or advertising cuts ala traditional TV. The closure of sports bars and other viewing areas won’t affect esports, since these events were still an emerging novelty. As countries began entering into lockdown, several regional TV broadcasters began signing and scheduling esports leagues. Possibly a coincidence, but also a potential sign of esports’ biggest move yet to linear television.
It is unlikely that those unfamiliar with gaming will become die-hard League of Legends fans overnight, but esports isn’t simply providing for its native audience. Musicians, comedians, and other entertainers won’t stay silent in quarantine and are venturing out into the digital landscape in ways we’ve never seen before.
One can only host so many virtual concerts, so some artists are filling their time playing esports titles. Two years after she provided the voice of a digital League of Legends popstar, K-pop powerhouse Miyeon is now enjoying the game itself. Top athletes from the NBA are either binging on Twitch content daily, or even setting up their own streams.
— Inven Global (@InvenGlobal) March 23, 2020
The stay-at-home economy may be benefiting conference call companies, but entertainment options, like Netflix parties, might lose their appeal. A populace already married to social media will be convinced to try out games like Fortnite, which are all about social interactivity. A portion will then turn to hardcore esports titles, creating more familiarity with the professional games played daily.
These new eyeballs will sweeten esports as an offering for partners and sponsors, which by and large have not abandoned their respective leagues as they move to online-only play. For a lot of these brands, digital, not physical promotion was already the centerpiece of their marketing. As outlined in my recent interview with Acer’s Manuel Linnig, the fan engagement at home is potentially more valuable. “We, at the event, still have a presence, but the focus is for us to create the content through people, not at the event,” he said.
One of the most engaging storylines is that sports leagues are, for the time being, using their sports simulation titles to plug programming gaps, and audiences are tuning in to watch it.
The viewer count for the inaugural NASCAR Pro Invitational Series topped 903K, according to Nieslen, and became the most-viewed esports event in U.S. TV history. I want to caution that while sports sims will find an audience during lockdown, it probably won’t last. iRacing and racing simulators are already an anomaly; in that they are used as training tools for actual drivers, rather than just entertainment.
Pro-am tournaments for FIFA or NBA 2K may feature real athletes right now, but they are essentially a placeholder until the real leagues come back on air. That’s not to say they won’t encourage long-term audience interest. Sports leagues may end up experimenting with digital watch parties, sports-sim invitationals for charity, and increased gamification of their content.
Esports’ value has always come from its authenticity; its appeal created through the largely unfiltered and unmanufactured ties players have with their audiences. In their hiatus, we’ve seen late-night TV talk show hosts and Oscar-nominated actors go without the lavish sets and live audiences they’re used to, creating home broadcasts that frankly look amateurish compared to the seasoned vloggers on YouTube.
While esports likewise has had to sacrifice studio quality to survive, at the end of the day the majority of what we see is generated in-game. There’s no core change required in tone, presentation, or voice. Even once the entertainment industry goes live again, it will have felt the power of digital, of OTT media, and reaching an audience directly. Esports and live gaming long ago fumbled through this DIY phase, and is ready to take the charge.
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