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Is This Esports’ Big Moment?

Baseball is barely hanging on. The NBA and NHL have returned to abbreviated schedules. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have postponed their fall sports. Can esports fill the giant programming void they’ve left behind?

The ongoing cancellation of college sports feels a bit surreal, as if we’re watching monoliths fall — and considering our rabid cultural devotion to college football and basketball, maybe we are. 

After much speculation and hand-wringing, the Pac-12 and Big Ten conferences announced on August 11th that all fall sports are on hold, with the hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will fade and spring will bring an opportunity to catch up. It follows the decision to cancel by several smaller conferences, namely the Mid-American Conference, which arguably set off the domino effect we’re witnessing now. 

After a weird, long drought, it feels like we have plenty of sports to consume, whether in the form of a baseball game or a much-anticipated NBA playoff. But nothing captures the national love affair with athletic pursuit quite like amateur collegiate sports, which have a certain raw purity compared to the corporate machinations of professional leagues. (Let us for now ignore the fact that the NCAA is guilty of the most unethical corporate machinations of all.) 

At this moment in time, losing so much sports isn’t just a mental blow, but a pragmatic one: What the hell are we going to do with all those hours on Saturday? 

Enter the billion-dollar esports industry, which has been mopping up revenues and new fans during the pandemic. 

The growth of esports viewership over the last decade has primarily occurred on the backs of gamers, but that trend has shifted rapidly under the stress of COVID and mass quarantines, says Robert Rippee, director of the eSports Lab at University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ International Gaming Institute. The boom has brought in inexperienced gamers or those who don’t have much connection with playing games at all, and major networks have taken note of the potential untapped demand. No one expected NASCAR could pull in 1.3 million online viewers by broadcasting its drivers racing in a simulation video game — but it did. 

“These mainstream media outlets need content, especially a network like ESPN, which is running short of traditional content and need contingencies for delays and cancellations,” he notes. “They had to backfill with what’s already available, and networks have some experience with esports already. They’re realizing they can boost what’s already there into primetime.”

Not all games are created equal when it comes to enticing new viewers, but generally, “you don’t have to actually play to understand what’s going on,” Rippee adds. A prime example is the “battle royale” shooter Fortnite, which is brutally hard to play at expert levels but intuitive to follow. Differences in tactical style and pure hand-eye coordination quickly become apparent for even casuals scrolling through streams of different players in a tournament. And while other major esports titles like League of Legends may be more complex to understand, it’s still often easier for the average person to grasp than, say, the intricacies of football’s interference rules

Meanwhile, many colleges have already started building their own pipeline for young esports talent, creating varsity-level teams and even dangling scholarships to attract the fastest mouse-clickers in America. The University of Utah developed its program just three years ago, but the team already can attract hundreds of in-person spectators, plus thousands of online viewers, to its competitions. In the pandemic, some Division I schools were able to provide top-tier equipment for their esports athletes to use at home, and tournaments have continued despite the need to shutter live gatherings. After all, squads don’t need to travel to play each other. 

“If ever there was a team sport that was designed for social distancing, it’s esports,” Joe McAllister, a learning environment adviser at CDW•G, told EdTech Magazine. “It’s not surprising, then, that many universities are determined to keep the games going.”

Despite the rapid growth of esports popularity in 2020, and the embrace of high-level play by major Division I schools, it’s still hard to imagine the average diehard SEC football fan just deciding to fill his weekends with Overwatch streams instead. But one of the most enticing perks of esports is that it provides a tantalizing new arena for gambling for those fans who love having a stake in all kinds of action. It’s no coincidence that New Jersey is in the final steps of approving a law to kick open the floodgates for esports betting, which has been highly regulated in the U.S. The legalization of sports betting is a potential boon for state coffers — New Jersey has raked in $583 million since going public in 2017. 

“States whose tax revenues have plummeted in the pandemic are looking for new sources to fill the void. I think at last count there were more than 40 states at various stages of either legalizing or considering allowing some form of sports betting,” Rippee tells me. “So if you don’t have those traditional sports in the fall, what can you fill that void with?”

The industry has noticed that the rise of esports can bring in an entirely new (and digitally savvy) generation of people into sports betting, but in a strange way, the chaos of the pandemic is finally putting esports on the main stage, to prove whether or not it can entertain and ultimately capture mainstream audiences. As venture capitalist Matthew Ball argues in his breakdown of esports, the fervor around it will likely recede once COVID subsides.

“However, the novel coronavirus will have permanently increased esports’ overall economic and cultural trajectory,” he continues. “It has been popularized and legitimized in an unpredictable and profound way.”