e-sport in the time of no sportMarch 28, 2020
Two years ago, left-winger Achraf Hakimi became the first Moroccan to win a UEFA Champions League medal, during his time with Real Madrid. Later that same year, Hakimi experienced the high of representing his country at a FIFA World Cup, starting in each of the three matches his country played in Russia—against Spain, Portugal and Iran.
These days, Hakimi is on loan at Borussia Dortmund, where he is set to continue to represent the German club even during Bundesliga’s coronavirus break. How, you ask? Starting Saturday, he will control the fate of Dortmund with his hands on EA Sports’ FIFA 20, in a two-week tournament sanctioned by Bundesliga. The “Bundesliga Home Challenge” is made up of all the major German clubs, with each team made up of a professional player (like Hakimi for Dortmund) and another member of the club staff. This will be televised live in Germany, just as eNASCAR will be broadcast on Fox Sports next Tuesday in the USA—after the virtual race over the weekend was watched by nearly a million viewers (903,000 to be precise). According to esportsobserver.com, Tuesday’s eNASCAR race could just become the most viewed e-sport event in US television history.
Welcome to the future of e-sport consumption—growing exponentially by the day and even more so due to the ongoing pandemic that has brought to a halt all the major sports events around the globe, right from the Olympics to the English Premier League and closer home, the Indian Premier League. The world as we know has been upended by the lockdown enforced due to the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving consumers craving for alternate sports options within the confines of their living rooms. So, with traditional sports like football and Formula One seeking online alternatives to stay relevant, e-sport is set to witness a spurt and redefine the gaming industry.
According to a Washington Post report, Gen.G Esports, a professional gaming organisation based out of the US and South Korea, has seen an 18.2% bump in Chinese viewership over the last two months on two streaming sites, Douyu and Huya, for its Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) and League of Legends (LoL) teams. The first day of ESL Pro League (a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive professional e-sport group) had an audience of 146,000 viewers on March 16, compared to 115,000 a year ago—a 27% increase.
India is set to be a major player too, say experts. Winzo, an Indian e-sport platform, has witnessed a 30% spike in tier 1 traffic last week, according to a BusinessLine report. According to a report by KPMG in March 2019, the number of occasional viewers and e-sport enthusiasts in India are expected to grow more than five-fold by 2021.
In 2017, there were 2 million occasional viewers as well as e-sport enthusiasts in the country. By 2021, that number is expected to rise to 10 million. Globally, there were 192 million occasional viewers in 2017, which should touch 307 million by 2021. As far as the revenue growth is concerned, it is estimated to be at $1,650 million by 2021, a substantial rise from $655 million in 2017.
This pandemic, however, is set to expedite that process. “Definitely, we will see a surge,” said Lokesh Suji, director of Esports Federation of India and board member and VP-South Asia of the Asian Esports Federation. “You understand some things only in a state of helplessness. So this (lockdown) situation has created an opportunity for e-sport to make its mark and spread its wings in India.”
Suji claims that e-sport are also far more viable for brands to make an investment in. “There are two critical aspects. The first is from a brand perspective. A lot of brands want to invest in sports, but most of them cannot do so in physical sports because of budget issues. So their next best option becomes e-sport. That is where this will also increase the surge,” Suji said. “And right now, everyone is sitting at home, so a lot of them will have an opportunity to sit and play.”
The general perception that e-sport is essentially an online based entity does not always hold true. The bigger championships are often held in an arena with spectators being one of the larger stakeholders. Though played online, physical proximity of team members is sometimes essential for better coordination. Also, almost all top championships are held in a Local Area Network (LAN). However, if a game has to be shifted completely off LAN, it involves terabytes of data— an expensive makeover at the best of times.
That has pushed back some major e-sport events. Like in the League of Legends, where champions South Korea returned to online play on Wednesday and will continue the second half of its season in a non-LAN setting for the foreseeable future. And due to physical proximity of the players a big no in today’s crisis, even e-sport is not beyond postponements and cancellation of events.
The ESL One Rio 2020 Counter-Strike: Global Offensive Major, originally scheduled for May 11-24 in Rio de Janeiro, has been postponed to November. In California, Blizzard Entertainment has postponed the weekend’s online Overwatch League matches due to the statewide ‘stay at home’ order.
Still, the overall involvement with regards to e-sport is expected to grow globally. “A lot of our streamers who organise tournaments as a community, they have started creating championships where people participate online,” said Suji. “For example, I know a group called ‘Rivalry Wars’ that has announced a championship which will go on for a month. Similar is the case for PUBG. So it is a good sign,” he said.
What these spurts and spikes should also do is help strengthen the bid to make e-sport an Olympic sport in the near future. And if that happens, India could expect a sizeable haul. “No doubt Asia will be a strong force,” said Suji. “South Korea is the traditional hub for e-sport; China is a huge player as well. Even Indians can dominate in a couple of e-sport. We saw Tirth Mehta winning the bronze at the Asian Games (in Hearthstone). We are good in the tech side of things anyway.”