“It’s certainly an opportunity for the space to demonstrate that esports can scratch the itch on competition,” said Lee Trink, CEO of FaZe Clan, which fields a team in the Call of Duty League in addition to its stable of Los Angeles-based streamers. “The trains are continuing to run over at FaZe Clan."
Across what has become a highly diversified esports landscape, certain leagues and games are better positioned to weather the uncertainty facing the world. But the pervasive belief across the esports community is that more people will discover and watch matches, even if revenue generation from live events is temporarily unavailable.
“Canceled events impact a certain aspect of the fan experience, but unlike traditional sports where the live event is a financial and economic driver of the overall experience, esports is different in that, from a broadcast perspective, so much of broadcast is focused on online and not as dependent on the live audience,” said Kent Wakeford, co-founder of Gen.G, an esports organization, and a member of the board of directors for Flashpoint, a new league for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. “For the League of Legends World Championship at the Bird’s Nest in China, there were 40,000 people, but 100 million people were watching it online. And it is [those] 100 million people that are fueling the growth of the esports ecosystem to a much greater degree than the actual events.”
That online audience has continued to grow over the past weeks as much of the world has stayed home. Wakeford said Gen.G has seen an 18.2 percent bump in Chinese viewership over the past two months — which has featured lockdowns in Wuhan and across the mainland — on live-streaming sites Douyu and Huya for its PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and League of Legends teams. The first day of the ESL Pro League, which features CS:GO, had an audience of 146,000 viewers, compared with 115,000 a year ago — a 27 percent increase.
“I believe you’ll run out of things to watch on Netflix … so people will surf the Web trying to find stuff to entertain themselves,” Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities monitoring the video gaming market, said of esports’ prospects. “There is an opportunity to expand their audience. It won’t expand by 50 percent, but it could possibly expand to 20 percent.”
Gaming as a whole is also seeing a boost, as evidenced when gaming platform Steam hit an all-time high number of concurrent users March 15: 20 million online and 6.2 million in-game.
Twitch declined to provide any figures around a change in viewership, but Sensor Tower, a research firm, shared data that showed sharp increases in first-time Twitch app downloads in Europe. Greece, Italy and Spain had increases of 50 percent, 41 percent and 26 percent week over week, according to Randy Nelson, Sensor Towers’s head of mobile insights.
In the United States, first-time installs had increased by 14 percent week over week as of March 16, but Nelson pointed out that the figure was still about 8 percent under the average weekly installs for 2020.
Increased interest in gaming is also evident on other fronts as people seek alternatives to live sports and its accompanying aspects. DraftKings reported a 12 percent increase in active players of its League of Legends fantasy league and featured its biggest contest for the event: a $60,000 prize pool.
A world of entertainment online
The paused state of the sports world is giving people who have heard of esports but may not have had time to check them out a chance to do so. It also promotes opportunities for content creators, already celebrities to younger audiences, with a surge in school-age viewers with more time on their hands with the closing of educational institutions. In Italy, for example, there has been a 66 percent viewership spike in minutes watched from the first week of February to the second week of March when the national quarantine began, according to StreamElements, which provides tools for streamers’ online broadcasts.
“I think all streamers should try to stream during the daytime to help keep school-age kids busy and engaged,” Turner “Tfue” Tenney, the world’s most-watched streamer, wrote in a text message to The Washington Post. “Personally, I will be streaming earlier and I will be encouraging kids to stream so parents can go on the Twitch app and see them. …
“Sadly with all major sports halted, there’s a huge void, you know. ... I think all we can do as gamers is say, ‘Hey, guys, watch us game on Twitch and enjoy our entertainment.’ Maybe we can game with out-of-work pro athletes and get everyone on the platform and get through this."
Some of the athletes who have expressed interest in joining the gaming community include the NBA’s Trae Young, Luka Doncic and Ja Morant. Longtime streamers such as fellow pro basketball players Josh Hart and Meyers Leonard took part in a Call of Duty tournament to raise money for coronavirus relief efforts.
The migration of game-enthusiast athletes to the streaming world was foreseen by Will Hershey, CEO of Roundhill Investments, who posted predictions to that end once sports leagues began closing down in March.
“Traditional sports athletes who are out of a job, a lot are active gamers and streamers and I could see them gravitate toward Twitch to engage with their fan base,” Hershey told The Post.
FaZe’s head of esports, Erik Anderson, said the increased attention during this time could lead to an improved product.
“Maybe with people diving in, more ideas coming in, we can come up with fun stuff to fill the time,” he said. “If people are watching more, they’re going to demand a higher type of content.”
In addition to esports organizations and streamers having a chance to grow their bases, some see a lane for particular games to grab more of an audience, especially those that are realistic and easy to follow. NASCAR recently held its first iRacing event, pitting gamers against famous drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch.
“It’s about offering average Americans, causal players, games they can understand,” Hershey said. “Call of Duty has a position to come out of this really the strongest, as opposed to League of Legends. … I don’t see LoL clips on ESPN doing as well as Call of Duty.”
Hershey noted that sports games, which have not traditionally garnered massive viewership for their esports competitions, have an opportunity to benefit as well.
“The biggest difficulty with sports simulation games ever becoming top-tier esports was that there was always the option of watching the real thing,” Hershey said. “You take that out of the picture, and you absolutely could see NBA fans getting into NBA 2K.”
The Phoenix Suns gave it a shot when they announced they would finish their season virtually on NBA 2K20. The stream, the team’s first, at one point topped 12,000 concurrent viewers.
‘Esports seem to be on a safer ground’
The major esports leagues have taken various approaches to coping with the coronavirus outbreak, though all canceled live-audience events. The League of Legends Championship Series suspended operations before announcing the resumption of league play from remote locations. A planned Spring Finals live event in Frisco, Tex., was canceled.
ESL postponed its ESL One Dota 2 Major in Los Angeles but started its CS:GO Pro League with online play. The NBA 2K League postponed the start of its season, originally set to begin March 24. Other postponements include Apex Legends Global Series and the Rocket League Season 9 World Championship. Events associated with the newly minted Smash World Tour were either postponed or allowed players to opt out without penalty to their league standing.
The Overwatch League said its matches would resume March 28 but that all homestands — a major initiative for that league featuring regionally hosted weekend events and competitions — would be canceled through April. The league also canceled its Midseason Tournament with a pot of $1.05 million. Call of Duty League is also planning to go online-only but has yet to announce its upcoming schedule.
Flashpoint moved its regular season games from a crowd-less Culver City, Calif., studio to a remote setup and will not hold its playoffs in Stockholm as originally planned.
In addition to safety concerns, leagues also have to deal with technological issues, especially in games in which a fraction of a second can mean the difference between winning and losing. The underlying issue is how long it takes data to get from a player’s machine to the game’s server, called ping. High ping leads to lag, which leads to an uneven playing field. Games such as Fortnite organize players by region, increasing the chance everyone will have similar ping.
“The bigger the game, the more global logistics, the more they’re probably hurting from this,” Anderson said. “Games that are more regionally focused are going to be fine.”
The Overwatch League will have to deal with its teams competing across North America and Asia.
“We’re currently working on a revamped match schedule that will allow all teams around the world to begin competing in March while minimizing latency concerns,” an Overwatch League news release said. ESL’s Pro League faces a similar issue, deciding to group teams by location, thereby lessening the distance from the server.
Although the leagues figure to lose money and exposure opportunities at the local level with these changes, industry analysts don’t expect the cuts to be too deep for the companies that own and operate these leagues.
“Companies make money from games, not esports,” Pachter said. “There isn’t going to be an impact long term unless this is the Black Plague and if a recession is so deep it causes massive unemployment so people can’t afford to buy games. League of Legends World Championship isn’t about making money; it’s about promoting League of Legends.”
Sponsors, which provide esports organizations with the lion’s share of their revenue, are also unconcerned. In fact, now that esports leagues have the stage of competitive entertainment largely to themselves, they are attracting new business opportunities. Zenni, a direct-to-consumer eyewear company that has a patch on the Chicago Bulls’ jersey and sponsors the San Francisco 49ers, is doubling down on its esports partnerships.
“Currently esports seem to be on a safer ground just by their digitally native existence, and we’re obviously excited by that,” said Sean Pate, Zenni’s brand communications officer.
Pate said Zenni is planning to announce more esports team sponsorships, which he called the “most sustainable” during this uncertain period.
“If there was ever a time in sports history that digitally native forms of entertainment would be top of mind," he said, “it’s now.”
Noah Smith is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and staff journalist for Direct Relief, a nonprofit. Follow his work on Twitter @Vildehaya.