How the COVID-19 pandemic altered the ESports landscape

This year will be remembered as a time that was as awful for the world as it was great for ESports.

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When the history books are cracked open 50 years from now, 2020 will be remembered as a time that was as awful for the world as it was great for ESports.

Millions upon millions of people were suddenly quarantined at home, looking for ways to pass the seemingly endless days. And as much as it was a good time to own a stake in Netflix or digital-book publishing, it was ESports where things went completely stratospheric.

That’s proven by new stats from the International Data Corporation and Esports Charts showing that the number of livestreaming hours spent on Twitch has doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic. With League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Fortnite leading the way, 1.7 billion hours of competitive action were watched by fans in May, compared to 867 million hours watched last December.

And the landscape-shifting didn’t stop there. Here are four ways the ESports game changed as the industry adapted to make the most of a COVID-19 world.

Pivoting

The term pivoting is something we’ve seen a lot, especially during the early days of the pandemic. Seemingly overnight, traditional sports had their seasons derailed, including major-league hockey, soccer, basketball, golf, and international auto racing. The question then became how to keep fans engaged when stadiums and stands were empty and star athletes were in lockdown just like the rest of us.

The answer was to move things to the digital world. Auto racing was arguably first off the line; six days after Formula 1’s season-opening race in Melbourne was cancelled, foreshadowing the torpedoing of the season, we had the launch of a series called the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix. Viewers tuned into ESPN in the hundreds of thousands to watch drivers rip up the track in simulated cars.

NASCAR was next, attracting online audiences just shy of a million. The weeks that followed saw all kinds of firsts, from the NBA 2K league getting prime-time live coverage on Sportsnet, to NHL stars taking to the virtual ice for the Player Gaming Challenge, and the U.S. Ladies Professional Golf Association launching an online tournament. In all cases, the competition was every bit as fierce as it is in real life.

Betting

There’s no question that the idea of betting on ESports is difficult for some to wrap their heads around, but it shouldn’t be. If we had to make a wager, old-school thinking was that it would be easy for an ESports athlete to throw a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive match. You know—the way much of the Chicago White Sox team conspired to throw the 1919 World Series.

The 2020 cancellation of every sporting event this side of Turkish oil wrestling meant Vegas bookies had to think of new ways to pay the electrical bills. And before long, ESports gained a new audience. The dominoes started falling when the Nevada Gaming Commission approved season-long betting on CS:GO in March, followed by the green light for wagering on Overwatch League, Dota 2, and League of Legends.

The U.K. Gambling Commission reported last week that British betting on ESports hit nearly $2.6 million in March, compared with $86,000 in March 2019. You can wager your next paycheque that Vegas bookies are salivating at the thought of Pokémon Unite announcing that a world championship is coming sooner rather than later.

Marketing

Just because your grandparents have no idea what ESports are doesn’t mean that the business isn’t a huge one. How big? ESports viewership was pegged at about 335 million in 2017, hit 454 million last year, and is projected to grow to 646 million by 2023. That means that a lot of eyeballs are glued to screens, and that’s insanely attractive to corporations looking to increase brand awareness.

Knowing that there was a captive COVID-19 audience out there didn’t hurt either, which is perhaps why you now see the Mastercard and Kit Kat logos flying on banners in the background of the League of Legends kingdom. And why Marvel teamed up with Team Liquid on jerseys and hoodies that nod to both ESports and the iconic likes of the Hulk, Black Widow, and Iron Man. Even brands that don’t exactly need the money have recognized the demographically desirable power of ESports: Gucci jumped into bed with Fnatic this spring for a dive watch retailing at US$1,600.

Branding

One way to attract hi-wattage companies with boatloads of advertising cash is to recognize the importance of branding. There’s nothing wrong with selling yourself as a team in the traditional sense—that’s worked for everyone from the New York Yankees to the Los Angeles Raiders. But if you can sell yourself as a lifestyle, there’s serious money to be made in a short time. Ask Sean “Puffy” Combs, who realized that building an empire only started with rapping.

Organizations like the Los Angeles–based FaZe Clan has cleverly sold itself as more than a great way to bring gamers together. The operation’s home base in the Hollywood Hills sees vloggers, designers, and, yes, ESports athletes living under one roof, hanging out in the billiards room and spa, and kicking back in the in-house theatre. Want to feel like you’re part of the Clan? Spring for a branded T-shirt, hoodie, or pair of sweatpants.

Entertainment mogul Jimmy Iovine likened the FaZe vision to the rise of hip-hop this past spring, spearheading an investment drive to raise US$40 million for brand expansion. In announcing his involvement, he stated, “We’re at the birth of a new disruptive entertainment genre. FaZe Clan is a very powerful pipeline into gaming culture and their cultural impact reminds me of the early days of ’90s hip hop.”

An outrageous claim? Only if you’re the kind of person who was once firmly convinced Puff Daddy was going to peak with No Way Out

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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