By Lucas Peltier.
From the NBA to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the COVID-19 pandemic has put mainstream sports to a standstill. Stadiums, ballparks and arenas across the globe (which would be crowded around this time with eager spectators) are shut down because of the coronavirus.
But aside from all of the doom and gloom the pandemic has brought into our lives, the sports world is not entirely dead. Esports or the competitive videogaming industry is having the time of its life during this crisis, given how more people are turning towards gaming to pass the time while in self-quarantine. Verizon reported that the domestic peak-hours of Americans playing videogames went up 75% in the first week of quarantine – and likewise, watching gamers compete on streaming platforms such as Twitch is at an all-time high with 22.7 million daily active users since March.
It is not safe to say that the competitive world of esports has been affected by the coronavirus, as many of their major competitions are held and attended in big venues like traditional sports. What makes esports resilient to the outbreak though is its capability to move to an online format compared to other sports organizations. An example is Activision-Blizzard’s Overwatch League, one of the largest professional esports leagues and holds sold-out in-person events at arenas like Madison Square Garden, had to cancel their entire 2020 season.
However, the league was able to host matches online since players were still able to compete from the safety of their homes.
“The current pandemic is a challenge with traveling restrictions, and we may not see esports teams together for a while,” states CheckpointXP On Campus producer Ethan Schneider. “But the beauty of esports as a whole is that you can connect online.”
Something in fact, motor racing has taken note of and is paving the way in broadcasting simulated races on television. NASCAR is hosting an iRacing Pro Invitational Series on Fox in place of its regular season with notably racers such as William Byron and Kurt Busch taking the virtual wheel from indoors. The televised eNASCAR race from the computer-generated Texas Motor Speedway on March 29th is currently the most watched esports broadcast ever with 1.3 million viewers. The NBA also aired a tournament on ESPN with the likes of Kevin Durant and Derrick Jones Jr. playing against each other in NBA 2K, which seem like a golden opportunity for esports to branch further into mainstream audiences – as well as the sports betting industry in Las Vegas.
A few years back, many bettors expected esports to explode in Las Vegas since it is a huge draw in Europe, one report even projected the amount betted on esports would almost total to $1 billion this year. This never happened and esports betting in the U.S., especially in Nevada did not have very good results – specifically due to the demographic. An example is when the HyperX arena at the Luxor opened in 2018, which is operated by Allied Esports. Back then, the company expected the average demographic to be players, specifically men in their 20s. Instead, the average players are 16-year-olds, who are too young to wager bets – yet along drink alcohol.
However, with the absence of regular sports content, the legal aged demographic is searching for options to place money on and the Nevada Gaming Control Board has started approving wagers on esports, including eNASCAR, Overwatch League, and Dota’s ESL One Los Angeles.
“It’s a step in the right direction and legitimizes esports as an enterprise,” says Schneider. “Like when the Overwatch League signed an exclusive deal with YouTube, many outlets compared it to the Super Bowl airing primarily on Fox. In the long run, esports betting can elevate to a point where it is no longer a taboo topic to talk about and it is normal to go bet on a Call of Duty game at the sports books.”
Some professional sports teams within the Las Vegas valley are even joining in on the action to fill the void. The Vegas Golden Knights have hosted simulation matches on Twitch using the hockey videogame NHL 20, and midfielder Jose Carrera is currently representing the Las Vegas Lights FC by playing EA Sports FIFA 20 in the USLe Cup against other teams in his division. In many ways, professional athletes and other celebrities playing videogames has helped for valued fan interaction, but the main question is if esports will continue forward after the pandemic or if this is a temporary alternative while real sports are suspended?
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for esports in the U.S. is the preconceived notions that the athletes themselves are not actual athletes, but people who play videogames. However, millions have spent in quarantine, esports has provided a feeling of escapism must like how regular sports content has done in the past.
Schneider is optimistic for the future of esports and sees the industry returning to Vegas.
“It depends on how the leagues are managed, some NFL owners have money in certain teams where they are paying for primetime slots on television and advertisement to spread awareness,” he says. “Given time, I see this leading towards normal conversation and one of the things people talk about.”