With coronavirus causing disruption to all facets of life, the sporting calendar faces substantial postponements or even cancellations, with large social gatherings both indoors and outdoors discouraged, as well as many players and teams contracting the disease or self-isolating from it.
In parallel with this, the outbreak is forcing sports fans to stay at home, leading consumers to be in more desperate need of entertainment content during quarantines. With broadcasting scheduling being left practically barren, an opportunity arises for fans to view digital allegories of their favourite sports, through esports. Already Netflix, Disney+ and Apple TV have announced production of many projects have been paused due to disruption caused by the outbreak.
Traditional sports teams are no strangers to esports, with clubs from across Europe’s top football leagues and the NBA fielding teams for digital tournaments and in many cases retaining players on salary. The sports leading the charge in esports currently are football, basketball and sim-racing. The digital versions of these sports offer an ideal transition for traditional fans, given the inherently familiar spectator viewing positions.
Whilst the digital versions of traditional sports have received a lot of press thanks to investment by teams, players and celebrities into esports franchises, sport based esports make up a small part of the entire esports ecosystem, which was estimated at $923 million in 2019, during Futuresource’s 2019 research into the industry. Whilst the FIFA eWorld Cup prize pool was $500,000 in 2019, the highest value to date has been the Fortnite World Cup, which was worth $100 million over the 2019 season and the DOTA 2 International which boasts $25 million in prize money. These tournaments are already drawing huge online audiences, with the 2020 IEM Katowice CSGO Grand Final drawing a peak online viewership of over 1 million fans. In comparison, the November 2019 premier league fixture between Liverpool and Manchester City, one of the most anticipated games of the season, attracted 3.4 million viewers via traditional broadcast. Whilst there is still some distance between these figures, the growth potential of esports suggests that parity of viewership between traditional sports and popular esports tournaments is not far away.
Clearly, teams will want to maintain engagement with fans, particularly young fans, and as such directing scheduling to esports makes sense given the restrictions paced on traditional sports. Currently, the EFL League 2 club Leyton Orient has become the centre of a 128 team FIFA tournament, the so called ‘Ultimate Quaranteam’ where teams are represented by their esports athletes.
The replacement of traditional fixtures with digital version may aid in converting traditional fans to esports fans, an important avenue for the growth of the fanbase in the long run. Similar trends have been seen in women’s sport, which has seen rapid growth as a result of increased TV airtime and media coverage. Additionally, increased fan engagement with streaming sites and esports is expected to hasten the growth of both digital replicant franchises and the wider ecosystem, with growth likely to surpass the previously forecast 19-23 CAGR of 18.1% in terms of industry revenue.
A short-term benefit of these initiatives to the industry will be boosts in viewership figures for popular streaming sites such as Amazon owned Twitch, YouTube Gaming and Microsoft’s Mixer, with idle consumers looking for new ways to view their favourite sports in lieu of actual fixtures. Twitch viewership has seen a 12% year-on-year increase compared with March 2019, with rapid growth in viewers in the last two weeks. Crucially however, there has also been an increase in the number of paying subscribers (who pay $5 per month for additional channel and social features), of which Amazon takes a significant cut. There has also been an increase in the number of channels and content creators, with the young audience stuck at home due to school closures using the platform to interact with the outside world.
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There remain challenges to this transition however, with traditional broadcasters likely to struggle to implement the required broadcasting techniques to take advantage of this rapidly changing situation and opportunity. It may however signal to these broadcasters that this may be a programming option for the future, a move already made by certain sports broadcasters in the US. Another challenge to broadcasters is the inherently digital native nature of the esports community. Whilst broadening this fanbase to include newly converted traditional fans may provide an audience for traditional broadcasters, long run success is likely to be found online. An option open to broadcasters hoping to capitalise on this short-term wave of esports popularity would be to expand online offerings to include digital streams or alternatively to seek partnerships with experienced, incumbent esports streaming websites.
Overall, the covid-19 outbreak is certain to provide opportunities to providers of at-home entertainment and those who are willing and able to adapt programming to suit the demands of the captive audience are likely to see success. Digital video providers, gaming publishers and esports tournament organisers are all set to benefit from lock-down situations, with fresh programming likely to be in high demand should the outbreak persist beyond H1 2020. Esports, a naturally online variety of entertainment is then perhaps better placed than its traditional counterparts to fill the void in scheduling and satisfy consumer demand.