Fill the void? Esports takes stock of opportunity
The digital-first foundation of esports could put the industry in a good position to attract more attention during the coronavirus shutdown, but the fallout from the pandemic also has upended what was supposed to be a big year for in-person gaming events.
Competitive gaming was one of the first sports to be negatively affected by the coronavirus, as several esports properties have a major presence in China, including League of Legends’ regional Chinese league, the LPL, along with several teams based there from the Overwatch League.
The LPL just restarted with online-only matches in recent weeks after suspending the season in January. Overwatch League’s four Chinese teams are now getting ready to play their first games of the season with online-only matches after missing more than a month of the season due to canceled homestands.
The canceled events have affected everything from ticket revenue to overall momentum in local markets for the geolocated esports leagues. But the virus outbreak has also led to a big moment for esports, as its digital presence can give millions of quarantined people something to do even during a pandemic.
“It doesn’t make me feel good to know that we’re one of the only sports in the world that’s able to play during this incredibly difficult time; I love sports and miss sports,” Pete Vlastelica, CEO of Activision Blizzard Esports and commissioner of OWL, wrote in an email. “But here we are, and our show is going on, and it does feel good to hope that Overwatch League and Call of Duty League can give people a fun, exciting competitive entertainment outlet while we all work together to slow the spread of the virus.”
Andy Miller, founder and co-CEO of NRG Esports, which owns the San Francisco Shock in OWL and the Chicago Huntsmen in the Call of Duty League, noted that shutting down in-person events is “a step back in cultivating our local markets, but the good news is we got a bunch of events off spanning different parts of the country, and we sold tickets. For our Call of Duty League event in Chicago [that was canceled], we sold 7,000 tickets and sold out our event, so we proved out the model of, ‘Do people want to come and watch?’”
While it’s too early to say how big a boost esports properties could see amid the coronavirus sports shutdown, media reports in the U.S. last week indicated that Verizon saw a 75% jump in video game usage during peak hours since America started quarantining in mass numbers in early March. Moreover, Riot Games says the LPL shutdown saw a large shift of Chinese viewership to the Korean League, which posted a 42% increase in the number of hours consumed versus the prior comparable period.
Other esports properties to move to online-only competitions in recent weeks include League of Legends’ North American, Korean and European leagues, respectively, while in-person esports events for games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Rocket League have also been affected. Travel restrictions have even affected Riot Games’ plans to promote its new first-person shooter game, Valorant.
“This is definitely a bit of a mixed bag for the esports industry, which is better than you can say for most other forms of entertainment,” said Bryce Blum, founder of ESG Law and Theorycraft. “It definitely hurts to no longer be able to hold live events, particularly with the Overwatch League and Call of Duty League launching their localized model — an important experiment for the future of the industry. With that said, esports were born in a digital environment and the show absolutely can go on even if all of the competitions have to be handled remotely.”
Miller said OWL is readying special new marketing plans to promote the league at a time when not just gaming fans, but sports fans of all stripes, are thirsting for any sort of competition to watch.
Said Ben Spoont, co-founder and CEO of Misfits Gaming: “Esports has been able to adapt much quicker than traditional sports and as a result has the opportunity now to fill a large gap, so in one sense, clearly viewership and engagement levels within gaming are now really high.”
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