eSports gamer in competition
Esport gamers in a heated match-up. (Photo: Alex Haney)

Esports thriving as Covid-19 disrupts mainstream sport

The crowds stopped roaring – for real, at least – and the floodlights dimmed, as major sporting codes delayed or cancelled their seasons and tournaments.

But the keyboards kept clattering and the mice kept clicking.

Deprived of watching live sport, many fans flocked to streaming platforms such as TwitchTV to enjoy a digital alternative called Esports.

Already a billion-dollar industry, Esports – where spectators watch professional video gamers compete – has ballooned amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

TwitchTV alone recorded five billion watch hours during the second quarter of this year – its highest ever figure, and a huge leap on three billion hours in the first quarter.

Traditional sports such as motorsport are offering Esport equivalents. By connecting a steering wheel and pedals to their computer, racers can translate their rigs into the digital space. 

“It’s very similar to what you do in real life, whereas you can’t really do that in [a lot of] other sports,” says motorsport commentator Lachlan Mansell. 

“Everyday people who don’t necessarily have any real-life motorsport experience can get online and race against motorsport stars.”

Sim-racing has been a popular arcade element since the 1970's.
Sim (simulated auto) racing consoles in an arcade (Photo: Brendan Miranda)

The digital switch has produced some unlikely scenarios, however. As Mansell explains: “We’ve seen incidents where cars have apparently crashed into each other without actually touching each other.

“Occasionally you get situations like when one car’s driving along inside another one, which is no good.”

The wider Esports industry is forecast to grow by 25 per cent this year, with a predicted 7.5 per cent increase in sponsorship revenue.

Daryl Adair, associate professor of sports management at the University of Technology Sydney, says the current situation offers the industry good potential for growth.

“Esports are already in the digital space,” he says.

“Their challenge is to reach mainstream sports fans who have little knowledge of what Esports offer. 

“There is the prospect for greater exposure among the uninitiated and, in some cases, a growth in customers.”

Problems such as bugs, lags and connectivity issues mean it’s unlikely that Esports will replace real-life sports. 

However, in the meantime, popular games such as Dota 2, an online battle arena game, have been offering big prize pools – as high as $42 million for Dota 2’s “The International” (TI) championships. 

The prize money excludes player contracts with teams. 

NBA stars play basketball with fans through NBA2K.
LA Lakers players livestream three-on-three matches against fans (Photo: TwitchTV)

Recently, one player with the League of Legends (LoL) game, known as “Faker”, turned down a $14 million contract with a Chinese team for an undisclosed sum and part-ownership to stay on with Korean team SK Telecom T1. 

Esports will be part of the Tokyo 2021 Olympics as an exhibition sport, featuring popular games such as Street Fighter V. 

However, the industry has not been immune to Covid-19-related disruptions, with major events with live spectators, such as TI, being cancelled or postponed. 

“This has compromised the hybrid nature of Esports competitions, which rely on a combination of virtual and visible fandom,” says Adair.