As COVID-19 put live sporting events in the penalty box, a number of teams and leagues realized that temporarily moving the goal posts to the virtual world was a way to score points with fans.
While some view eSports as a relatively new trend, organized online competitions have been a highly successful aspect of the video gaming industry for years, with the last decade seeing a significant increase in popularity. In 2019, eSports was noted as a billion-dollar (and rising) industry that is viewed on streaming services like Twitch.tv, YouTube Gaming, Mixer and even Facebook Gaming.
The younger generation certainly is aware of the phenomenon, as there are college programs that offer gaming degrees and varsity esports programs. When the traditional world of athletics was put on hold due to the coronavirus, some corners of the sporting world began incorporating eSports concepts to give fans their fix, boosting the profile of eSports into an even stronger position.
NASCAR turned to virtual races and featured top-tier drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin for the inaugural eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series with simulation-style eSports competitions that earned over 900,000 viewers.
At the local level, April 9 was to be opening day for minor league baseball as the Lansing Lugnuts were scheduled to play the West Michigan Whitecaps. In its own version of eSports, the Lugnuts instead teamed up with the Whitecaps for a “fauxpening day” event by using a dice-rolling website to guide the color commentary during a 60-minute simulated radio broadcast.
The World Boxing Super Series also dipped its toe in the digital world with fantasy matchups through EA Sport’s Fight Night, where electronic versions of boxers like Mike Tyson and Sugar Ray Robinson won their respective competitions.
Across the pond, the Tour de France has taken a page from the eSports playbook by announcing the first Virtual Tour De France, where cyclists in 23 men’s and 17 women’s teams will face off during six stages of bike racing developed on the indoor cycling app Zwift. The “real” tour departs Aug. 26.
It’s expected that popularity of eSports will continue to gain even more momentum as a result of COVID-19, as the MLB, NFL, NHL and other sports league are expected to look very different for the next year, either playing to empty (or partially empty) stadiums or starting and stopping play as new surges of the virus ebb and flow. At least until the sporting world finds its footing, eSports will fill a huge void.
Certainly, the appeal for younger viewers will remain strong even after the virus fades. Older, more traditional sports fans, however, may take a little more time. The real question is, will traditional sports ever look the same again?
That being said, there is no doubt in this moment that eSports is currently winning the game.