Inside the rise of esports during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Esports are arriving in the mainstream thanks to COVID-19.

Traditional sports have been shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some, like the NBA, are planning to resume their season, others are still stuck in limbo. In the business sector, the effects of the pandemic have been felt by every company. Healthcare, likewise, has dealt with the painful consequences of the coronavirus in terms of deaths, a lack of testing, and lacking personal protective equipment (PPE).

However, one area seems almost perfectly suited to thrive in a time of mass social distancing with nothing to do—esports. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has shed new light on the $1 billion a year industry.

Esports has enjoyed a resounding boom as homebound people tune in to watch things like “League of Legends,” “Overwatch,” and “Rocket League.”

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Rising Numbers

The normal habits of the general public are completely thrown off right now. People sitting at home are consuming more digital content than ever before. With millions of people out of work, there’s also more time to go around.

Inevitably, that has led many people to the esports world. Whether they caught a broadcast of an “Overwatch” tournament on ESPN or a virtual NASCAR race on Fox, countless consumers are getting their first taste of esports. Many of them would have never given it a shot if their favorite sports leagues and live TV shows weren’t canceled.

Sunny Yen, the coordinator for UCLA’s collegiate esports program, says, “People used to get very upset if ESPN broadcast esports. And now we’re in a place where people are giving it more of a shot and realizing they like esports.”

In March alone, the first major month of the pandemic, viewership on Twitch—the go-to site for video game streaming—was up by more than 30 percent. By the end of April, it had grown by more than 50 percent. Twitch is seeing year-over-year increases of 101 percent compared to 2019—and its only June. The platform is up to 1.645 billion hours watched per month. Those gains are shared by the rest of the streaming industry.

Such increases reflect the fact that people aren’t just playing games while stuck at home, they’re also watching them. For esports, that’s a great sign.

Perfect Replacement

Just about any event where competitors and fans are close together in large numbers has been canceled. Minus a few random sporting events, almost every professional league has been shut down by COVID-19. Except for esports.

Though the pandemic did cause some minor disruptions, many games are now back on track with players competing remotely. Two of the biggest names in esports—the Overwatch League and the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS)—are operating smoothly.

LCS commissioner Christopher Greeley says, “This is a time where our fans need something to watch, need something to entertain them, need something to distract them from the things that are going on around them, even if it’s just for a short time.”

Discussing the quick resumption of play he added, “With the complete absence of conventional sports, and only a handful of esports able to deliver remotely, it was important for us to deliver for the fans.”

Still Facing Challenges

Although esports are far better suited to operating during a pandemic, they aren’t invulnerable. There are still plenty of challenges that accompany remote competitions and practices.

Steve Arhancet, owner of Team Liquid, a massive esports organization, says, “It is possible to train, and compete, and continue competition and create entertainment. It’s all possible. But it’s not like the flip of a switch.”

One of the biggest issues is lag. It’s something that gamers of all levels complain about. However, for serious esports players, it can be make-or-break. UCLA esports senior Ashley Denktas says, “It’s not debilitating, but we have some players with iffy connections. Without the right equipment, they feel like they can’t play at their best level.”

Moreover, many major esports tournaments involve players hailing from around the world. During an in-person tournament, that isn’t a big deal. When playing remotely, issues like time zones and latency are big factors.

Another problem is cheating. In-person tournaments are overseen by referees to ensure that the playing field is level. When competitions are remote, that’s harder to control. For instance, things like “aimbots” (software that automatically aims at enemy players in shooting games) need to be weeded out.

“We can get there,” says Arhancet, “We can do these things. We will be more resilient than a lot of professional sports industries. But how long will it take? Each game will handle that a little bit differently.”

Retaining Not Recruiting

Right now, esports are closer than ever to breaking into mainstream entertainment markets. Some pro players make seven-figure salaries and many tournaments have multi-million-dollar prize pools. With millions of people eager to tune in, esports is on the verge of competing with traditional pro sports.

Even so, most people involved in the industry aren’t focused on recruiting new fans at this time. While, of course, players and organizations happily welcome anyone that’s interested, the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t being widely used as a marketing opportunity.

Rather than trying to pull in new fans, organizations are working to keep their existing fanbases engaged and entertained.

LCS’s Greeley says, “If the ancillary effect of that [COVID-19] is people who normally would be watching the NCAA tournament are flipping on Twitch and finding the LCS and sticking around, that’s great. But it’s certainly not what we’re driving towards.”

Even so, the increase in exposure certainly isn’t going to hurt the esports industry. Moving forward, it isn’t unreasonable to believe that many fans who found it during the pandemic will stick around once traditional sports return. In a sense, esports is slowly becoming the new normal.

Another UCLA senior and varsity “Overwatch” player, Naveen Sheik, perhaps said it best, “I didn’t grow up with esports, but my 5- and 6-year-old cousins are growing up with it. I think this increase in viewership is going to have a long-term impact, where people see it as the norm.”

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