The pandemic way: how esport is living its best life and traditional sports are keeping the pace


Early 2020 got off to a rough start, as we all know, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus and the measures taken to slow its spread, literally blocking a big chunk of the economy. Without a doubt, the sports industry has been hit hard. Almost all big events have been cancelled or postponed, pushing event organizers, leagues and federations to the brink of bankruptcy. The latest announcement to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was the final blow: the Olympics have only been canceled three times (1916, 1940 and 1944) because of war, but never postponed. This will have huge repercussions for all stakeholders. 

Jae C Hong/AP

But if we want to focus on the positive, inside the reign of sports, the younger esports has the potential to gain terrain on its elder sibling by seizing new opportunities during these unprecedented times. Still unaware of exactly what esport is and its origins? Check out the three-part article we wrote on that subject a while ago!

Esports goes back to its roots

Over the past three years esports transcended the digital world and started organizing live events. Korea and Japan paved the way, organizing huge “League of Legend” tournaments, filling 50’000 seats during their major events. The West is following their lead with soon-to-come in-stadium championships. 

Riot Games

So clearly, esports will also not get by completely untouched since they breached through to the real world, with organizers pushing to stage IRL (In Real Life) events that are now negatively impacted by the pandemic. 

But they do have an obvious advantage to traditional sports, because they can easily come back to their roots. Before packed stadiums in real life, most esport events took place online, with tournaments based on a server. The rise of livestream platforms such as Twitch (see Part 2 of our article series) helped gather an audience for these tournaments, while acclimating the public to watching someone else play video games through streamers. 

Over the last two months with over two billion people stuck at home, Twitch made an 18.2% jump in viewership worlwide. Want bigger numbers, here they are: in Italy, live-stream viewership (in terms of minutes watched) grew over 66% since the quarantine began in March. Twitch downloads on mobiles are up 50% in Italy and 41% in Greece, where the lockdown is hitting the population hard. 

Twitch is not the only one finding a silver lining in this situation: YouTube Gaming viewership was also up by a full 15% last week, pushing the whole gaming and streaming industry through the roof. And playing has never been so good: Steam, the world’s largest and most popular PC gaming marketplace reached new heights last week with its largest-ever recording of concurrent users – more than 20 million were on the platform at the same time. 

For the sport lovers out there, this feeling of uncertainty we get while watching sports live is definitely missing. But esport might also be able to deliver this emotion, so for now the power of “live” has shifted to their side, with the big question now being: will they be able to retain all this attention when this situation is over and people are able to leave their homes again? 

Cancellations, postponements or getting online: how esport is adapting to this situation

The major players in the sports industry have been approaching potential cancellation or postponements of their events differently. Let’s zoom in on these games as an example:

One of the biggest games over the past few years, League of Legends, decided that both the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) and the League of Legends European Championship (LEC) would continue, but with teams playing solely online from their homes or hangouts. Furthermore, the LEC Spring Finals were moved from Budapest to the LEC Studios in Berlin, and the event will no longer host a live audience. 


The most played first-person shooting game, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, has also made some difficult decisions. The ESL (esports organizer and production company that produces video game competitions worldwide) has decided to play ESL Pro League Season 11 matches online, and to hold the finals at a closed European studio rather than in Denver, in order to avoid travel bans around the world. The Intel Extreme Masters competition in Katowice has been directly impacted, the players and staff being already on site for the competition when the lockdown was officialized. 

For Dota 2, the ESL and game producers Valve decided to postpone March’s ESL One Los Angeles 2020 Dota 2 Major due in part to the spread of the virus as well as travel bans. In response to that decision, esports betting platform Rivalry has decided to partner with event organizer 4D to host the No Major No Problem online tournament in South America at the end of March, which will feature eight teams from the region competing for a cut of the U$S 5,000.- in prize money. The headline team for this tournament will be Peruvian squad Thunder Predator, one of the two South American teams that had qualified for the postponed ESL One Los Angeles Major. 


So, why did some games decide to put a hold on events that could otherwise be held online? Part of the explanation could be the “ping” effect – a term that describes the time it takes data to get from a player’s machine to the game’s server. High ping leads to lag, which leads to an unfair playing field. This technological issue is a major concern for Leagues, especially since a fraction of a second can mean the difference between winning and losing. To address this, Fortnite organizes virtual meetups of players by region, thus increasing the chance everyone will have the same ping. 

What about sponsoring?

While most sponsors are trying to remove themselves from the traditional live sporting events, they have a renewed interest in esport. Since esport is mainly an online business, it has been able to maintain most of its activities, and thus the attention of the public, which is what matters most to a sponsor. 

Recently, Zenni, a direct to consumer eyewear company that sponsors the Chicago Bulls’ jersey and the San Francisco 49ers, shifted part of their marketing budget to sponsoring the Golden Guardian team, an American esports organization operated by the NBA team Golden State Warriors. 


“Currently esports seem to be on a safer ground just by their digitally-native existence and we’re obviously excited by that,” Sean Pate, Zenni’s brand communications officer said. “If there was ever a time in sports history that digitally native forms of entertainment would be top of mind, it’s now.” 

Traditional sport relying on esports during the outbreak

Most traditional sporting organizations had already launched esport initiatives in their respective domains (see part 3 of our previous article series). Now that this unprecedented situation has come, others are joining in, offering interesting esport initiatives to help fill the void left by the cancellation of so many events: 

Formula 1: 

  • With races in Australia, Bahrain, Monaco, Vietnam and China already called off, and the Dutch and Spanish Grands Prix now postponed, the organization announced that it would now host an esports series. The Virtual Grand Prix Series has seen a number of current and former F1 drivers compete on the F1 2019 game, alongside guests from the esports and gaming worlds. As a matter of fact, racing is almost the perfect match for such a crossover. Technology has become so advanced that professional drivers can use simulation racing to accurately practice for major races in a safe – and relatively inexpensive – environment. Over 280,000 viewers watched Sunday's online race around the Sakhir International Circuit in Bahrain. Interestingly enough, it was broadcasted live on Sky and for free on the F1 Twitch, Facebook and YouTube channels, which also shows that the interest in live sporting events on Sunday is still alive and well. 


  • The NBA suspended its 2019-20 season following games on March 11, after which a player on the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus. They also decided to postpone their NBA 2K League, which was due to start on March 24th. They are now exploring the possibility of starting the pre-season next week by bringing everything online. But one NBA team decided to propose a new type of content. In fact, the Phoenix Suns will play the rest of the season games on NBA 2K20, all streamed via Twitch. They will use the following concept: The Suns keep their NBA schedule, but instead of playing them IRL, they invite a guest for every game to play against another guest from the city in which they were supposed to play. Last week, for their IRL scheduled game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Suns welcomed NFL wide receiver Keenan Allen, creating a stellar crossover between two of the biggest US major leagues. 



La Liga:

  • To replace their championship, which was postponed indefinitely, the Spanish football league has taken to the digital realm with a charity tournament on the videogame FIFA 20. La Liga were really clever – they selected 19 real players from the league, each one representing their real team, playing in a classic elimination-style tournament. The tournament was arranged by the league itself, with the help of their main sponsors, Spanish bank Santander and FIFA series developer EA Sports, eager to increase their visibility in this period of time. Another very smart move from La Liga: the tournament was hosted on Twitch by famous Spanish former League of Legends player Ibai Llanos, now a global streamer, also boosting his League of Legends community into a different kind of entertainment. Like the Virtual Grand Prix competition, the tournament was not only streamed on YouTube, Twitch and media channels, but was also broadcast on Movistar+ via Deportes 1 in Spain and on Eleven Sports in Belgium and Portugal. According to La Liga, more than one million viewers tuned in. Real Madrid striker Marco Asensio took the win, after which the Spanish team decided to create a Twitch channel. 

La Liga

What will retention look like after the pandemic?

Understandably, most eyes are focused on esports right now, but how will the industry keep people’s attention when this pandemic is behind us? Here are some strategies that could help:

  • Keep a close contact with the elder sibling
    • We saw traditional sports shifting gears to embrace the esport culture. Now it might be time for esports to do the same! A few collaborations were established before the pandemic, but even more could be done and this is the perfect occasion for esports to leverage their assets. - 

  • Keep the best from these difficult time
    • Despite everything, some good ideas came out of this: the crossover of traditional sports players gaming in esports tournaments and esports players hosting or commenting on traditional sporting competitions. The opportunities to keep some of the formats created during this specific situation are promising.

  • Rely on a better understanding of esports
    • In this specific situation, esports has acquired a new audience that is now aware of the rules of some of the games. It’s up to esports to help them keep up the pace. Promotional campaigns will be fundamental in order to assist them in remembering who helped them pass the time during these difficult days. And letting them know when esports is back IRL might also be a good way to keep them in the loop! 

Esport has a real opportunity for audience acquisition, even when this pandemic is long behind us. Their core audience will never leave them – that is a fact – but will the new audience still be interested in esports once the lockdown is over? Only time will tell. 

In the meantime, take care of yourself and all your loved ones, and stay home as much as you can. And if you need a bit of entertainment, check out Twitch where you will find plenty of live video games and interesting content. And if you haven't yet, read our previous articles on this blog!

A The Consultancy Group article, written by Alessandro Di Benedetto

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