Sport stronger than a virus: how the sports industry moves online formats

While traditional sports are in quarantine, computer game tournaments continue online – this attracts a new audience and new advertisers to esports

Through the coronavirus, esports has faced the same challenges as traditional sports: all offline events scheduled for spring have been canceled, postponed to fall or online. So, in late February – early March, one of the largest Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournaments – IEM Katowice 2020 (16 teams and $ 500,000 in prize money) – for the first time in history had to be held without spectators: the Spodek arena in Katowice, Poland, met world of esports stars with empty stands. Next, the management of the international ESL Pro League series (24 teams and $ 750,000 in prize money) and the FLASHPOINT franchise league (12 teams and $ 1 million in prize money) announced the decision to move all matches online.

One of the most high-profile “coronavirus cancellations” happened on March 12: the organizers of the major ESL One Los Angeles 2020 ($1 million in prize money) three days before the start announced that the event would not happen. Many clubs have already arrived in the United States for the sake of this tournament, since its results could radically change the balance of power in the world rankings and affect which teams will get to the Dota 2 World Championship – The International. Due to the late cancellation, the tournament operator ESL lost hundreds of thousands of dollars – on ticket refunds, rent and equipment of the site, and assistance to players who had already arrived in Los Angeles.

New audience

With its age-old focus on online, esports is now in a better position than the entire sports industry. In fact, offline esports tournaments are the icing on the cake, an attribute of solidity and scale borrowed from traditional sports. But if tens of thousands of spectators come to the stadiums, then the audience of broadcasts of top esports tournaments is measured in millions. For example, in 2019, the EPICENTER Major in Dota 2 collected 46 million views on various platforms (and this does not include the Chinese audience) and 15 million unique users. The current live streaming of eSports events is setting new records.

Thus, one of the recent matches of the international ESL Pro League series was watched by 489,000 people at its peak. By comparison, last season’s finale was watched by 370,000.

At the same time, not only the viewer audience is growing, but also the number of players: in March, the Dota 2 audience grew by 7.68%. The average number of online players in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in March was 671,000, which is 127,000 (23.36%) more than in February.

New sponsors

There are two main trends in sports sponsorship now. On the one hand, advertisers freeze their budgets previously planned for large offline events. On the other hand, companies are actively looking for a replacement, since the need for communication with the audience has not disappeared anywhere. And the public, deprived of most of the traditional forms of leisure, is looking for new formats of entertainment. Brands are feeling it, and esports announced several major sponsorship deals in March-April.

The watch brand TAG Heuer has become the new general partner of virtual Porsche racing, the Spanish club Vodafone Giants has signed contracts with the water manufacturer Font Vella and the confectionery company Chupa Chups, KIA Motors has signed agreements with the Rogue and Thunder Predator teams. And the American club Evil Geniuses agreed with the US Navy – and will prepare a Counter Strike: Global Offensive team for sailors.

It is too early to talk about an increase in the cost of sponsorship contracts. The crisis has affected all spheres of the economy, so it is unlikely that brands are ready to offer above average $200,000-500,000 for esports. But the fact that the competitions are held during the quarantine period and they are watched motivates companies to spend sponsorship budgets on esports.

Bookmakers have appreciated the potential of esports. In the absence of sporting events, they actively move to online events: for example, they accept bets on the Virtual Grand National races, then donate 2,600,000 profits to charities and the UK National Health Service.

Another important quarantine trend: organizers of concerts and traditional sporting events have a request for cooperation on esports and joint search for solutions to monetize content online.

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, an active process of virtualization of events familiar to the audience is underway in the world – such as football, hockey, races. So, in early April, the world famous obstacle race Grand National, held in England every year since 1839, took place in a virtual format. Their result was simulated using computer calculations and formatted in CGI video format. With CGI modeling, a lot of nuances have been recreated: mud from under the hooves, teams to repair barriers, spectators in the stands, and even an ambulance for riders who fell. The Virtual Grand National was broadcast on UK TV channel ITV in a time slot originally intended for real racing. The average number of viewers during the broadcast was about 4,300,000 people, at the peak time – 4,800,000.

The World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) did a similar thing. She hosted Legendary Heavyweight fights modeled in Fight Night Champion and featured them on Facebook. In the final, Mike Tyson defeated Muhammad Ali – sounds incredible, doesn’t it? The final fight received a modest 337,000 views, but Fight Night Champion was released back in 2011 and is far from modern standards in terms of graphics.

Formula 1 decided to hold virtual competitions instead of the stages of the Grand Prix postponed through the coronavirus: real people, including F1 drivers Lando Norris, Nicolas Latifi, Charles Leclerc, Alex Albon and the like, drive cars on the game tracks. The NASCAR series also hosted a virtual tournament featuring current and former racers and gamers. The races were watched by 1,300,000 people and were broadcast on the American channels Fox and FS1. Fox’s virtual racing became the second most popular sporting event of the week, surpassed only by WWE Wrestling.

The main basketball league of the world NBA, together with the publishers of the simulator NBA2K, launched a virtual tournament featuring stars Kevin Durant, Trae Young, Hassan Whiteside, Donovan Mitchell and others. The matches are covered by ESPN.

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