Whilst the rest of the sporting world has been brought to a standstill by Covid-19, the esport industry is uniquely placed to adapt and profit from its capacity to implement virtual competition. Since lockdown, there has been a significant surge in the number of people tuning in to watch online competitions or indeed any kind of virtual event; Gareth Bale has just raised £18,000 for numerous charities by playing Fifa 20 against Paulo Dybala and other stars.
Yet despite this adaptability, the industry has not remained totally unscathed. Numerous live events at stadiums featuring esports leagues and major finals have been cancelled. Respawn, for example, have said that the famous Apex Legends live events have been suspended until the situation improves.
Nevertheless, there is undoubtedly a commercial opportunity for the esports industry in that it can, in contrast to other sports, avoid total cancellations and take the majority of tournaments to a virtual platform. Furthermore, the industry is free to showcase its capabilities without competition from other sport and has a willing population of sports fans begging to be entertained. Esports is capable of not only taking tournaments online to reach wider audiences but also raising significant funds by involving celebrities such as Gareth Bale above or pitting athletes from across generations against each other. For example, the World Boxing Super Series virtual match between Mohammed Ali and Mike Tyson went viral on social media (Mike Tyson won on points, if you have not seen it).
Although viewing figures are rapidly rising, hosting virtual tournaments does present its own integrity issues for esports. It suddenly becomes much more difficult to ensure fair play: from regulating the complex software used by each player and ensuring that none of the competitors are claiming an unfair advantage, to the banal question of whether all competitors have the same internet connectivity speeds. All of these problems will need to be addressed to captivate new audiences.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see what the long term effects of Covid-19 may be for esports; most importantly whether or not the increased viewing numbers can be maintained. There is a noticeable level of cynicism about this across the industry. Indeed, Carlos Rodriguez Santiago, owner of European esport organisation E2, recently said he did not expect a large turnover of fans in the long run.
Whether or not the industry can capitalise will depend on a multitude of factors. It is our opinion that a crucial element will be the quality of attended competitions for the first time once normality resumes. There will likely be a large number of previously uninitiated people who enjoyed watching the tournaments virtually during lockdown and will consider attending the live tournaments. Their experience may shape the success of the industry in holding on to its new fans.
The next article in our series will look at esports outside the Covid-19 period and the legal issues that arise from live esport events.