Five ways the global esports landscape shifted in 2020

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Difficult as this may be to fathom, the past 10 months weren’t a complete write-off for almost every person on the planet not named Jeff Bezos. One of the big winners of the whole COVID-19 disaster was esports.

Even though it’s been one of the fastest-growing gaming phenomena across the globe for the past few years, it’s somehow flown under the mainstream radar. Unless, that is, you were one of the millions and millions dialed into Overwatch League, Rocket League, Call of Duty, or the League of Legends Worlds.

When COVID-19 lockdowns hit in March, esports suddenly exploded into the mainstream consciousness. Viewership hit new levels, celebrities began jumping onboard, and established sports were quick to leap into bed with digital gaming companies. Here are five ways that the global esports landscape shifted in a big way in 2020.

Friends in high places

Famous folks with huge bank accounts were attracted to esports long before the rest of us. Early investors in the game included the likes of Drake and Michael Jordan, both of whom enjoy a lifestyle that will never be experienced by mere mortals.

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Mitch Marner was one of the many high-profile esports investors in 2020.

Early this year, the entrepreneur with the Midas touch known as Jimmy Iovine made a major statement when he spearheaded a US$40 million round of fundraising for Los Angeles–based gaming and lifestyle company FaZe Clan.

Soccer star David Beckham joined the esports fray a few months later as the face of headline-generating U.K. startup Guild Esports.

Others giving esports a celebrity injection ranged from Korean actor Bae Yong-joon and K-pop icon Kim Hee-chul to Toronto Maple Leaf Mitch Marner.

Major entertainment conglomerate AEG even pulled into the esports lane, proving that diversification is everything even when you run Coachella. Tellingly, all entered the game by stepping right into the spotlight, rather than quietly pulling out the pocketbooks behind the scenes.

Online experiences

Sometimes bad news leads to good news, which doesn’t totally take the sting out of the bad news. Sound confusing? That’s okay, because 2020 was a mindscrew of a year for esports fans who enjoy the rush of being able to connect with their fellow gaming enthusiasts in the flesh.

Leagues for high-wattage games Call of Duty and Overwatch were set up around stadium competitions, where thousands of fans were supposed to pile into purchased seats to root for their favourite teams and players. And, of course, plump up the bottom line for team owners by loading up at the concession stand, and then really give the Visa a workout by heading over to the merch table.

That went right out the window quickly in the spring, with all that in-person competition moving to an online format. The League Of Legends’ LCS and European Championship went ahead, but online without in-person spectators. Call Of Duty cancelled all homestand live events in favour of online matches. And that was just the tip of the pyramid. The upside? Viewership on platforms like Twitch was through the roof. The downside? Um, the merch tables…the poor, poor merch tables.

Quick pivot

What happens when, seemingly overnight, every major sporting event from the NHL and NBA regular seasons to NASCAR and Formula One races are just outright cancelled? That question sprung out of nowhere in the spring, thus catching traditional sports fans completely by surprise.

Quickly, though, there was a major pivot to simulated action. Hockey players signed up for broadcast charity tournaments like the Player Gaming Challenge, while TSN aired NBA 2K League action in place of real games. Racecar drivers climbed into iRigs and then began tearing up the blacktop at digitally recreated tracks from Richmond, Virginia, to Bahrain in the Middle East.

Amazingly, people tuned in, not only by the dozens, but by the hundred of thousands. Even more important was who turned in. “Esports have been great for us so far. 80 percent of the audience is under 35 years old,” Formula 1 global research director Matt Roberts told Forbes in the spring. “That is amazing when you compare this to ageing TV audiences.”

Exit stage left

There’s an old sporting saying that goes something like this: “The game is fun until it’s not.” That’s when even the great ones—Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Larry Walker—know that it’s time to take off the jersey.

One might think that esports is something you can do forever considering you’re largely sitting in front of a computer with a controller, keyboard, or joystick. The paycheques certainly makes toughing it out in the trenches appealing, but that didn’t stop some high-profile names from bailing, usually citing burnout and health problems.

In June, Denmark’s Daniel “dafran” Francesca announced that he was retiring to become a farmer, with depression and boredom with gaming being factors.

Just a day later Jian “Uzi” Zihao walked away, citing health problems that included diabetes, obesity, and hand and arm injuries related to repetitive strain.

Just last month, Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng decided he’d had enough and was looking forward to becoming a successful “adult”. That, admittedly, sounds as sad as it does amazing, inspiring, and admirable. Retirement doesn’t have to suck—especially when you immediately end up in a better place.

Happy bedfellows

Here’s how you can tell when a sport or an athlete has totally made it: the sponsors start lining up looking for a piece of the action. Think marriages like Tiger Woods and Nike, Wimbledon and Rolex, and the NFL and Budweiser. Those multinational-corporation cash injections have seeped into the world of esports.

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Fnatic partnered with Gucci for a watch you can’t afford.

The NFL hooked up with FaZe Clan for a virtual football draft and merch-a-thon in April. In June Gucci and Fnatic teamed up for an exclusive watch that retailed for over $1,500—sorry, they were a limited edition, which means they are all likely gone.

This November, Fnatic and Bud Light joined forces to raise the profile of each other in Europe, where presumably Amstel Light remains the beer of choice for those who don’t totally know how to have a good time.

Mastercard and KitKat both turned on the money tap to be part of League of Legends—now their banners fly over Summoner’s Rift. Up next: Rocket League and NASA, Overwatch and Timex watches, and Call of Duty and Nature’s Call (aka your portable toilet specialists in Vaughn, Ontario). That’s right, Nature’s Call. Because everyone’s gotta go.

Mike Usinger once took the better part of two years to finish Grand Theft Auto. Over the course of his career he has written about everything from eSports to music to movies to travel.

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