So if you’re a fan of any organized professional sports, the last couple of weeks have been a bit of a bummer. Whether you were looking forward to filling out your NCAA March Madness brackets or like me were beginning to finally pay attention to the excruciatingly long NHL season as the playoffs approached (seriously, you can start watching in April…) it’s kind of been one of those “WTF just happened?” weeks. Even niche sports like pro tennis are canceling minor and major events and sports that haven’t even started their season like baseball are canceling their pre-season Spring Training, a ritual for the die-hards.
So while we’re all going to be sequestered for the foreseeable future, and if your Netflix/Disney+/Hulu watchlists aren’t going to fill the void left by the demise of live sports in 2020, may we suggest that you consider checking out what the digerati have been flocking to for years: eSports.
eSports is growing at a torrid pace and for a good reason: it’s bloody fun to watch. Whether or not you’ve ever played Halo or even know what a first-person shooter is, you’ll want to see what all the commotion is about. Why? Because before you know it there are going to be eSports competitions filling in the schedule where pro and collegiate sports used to be on your favorite sports networks, and we mean soon.
Already around the world real live professional athletes have taken to gaming platforms to replace their canceled matches. In the UK’s’ English Premier League (That’s soccer) last weekend a canceled match that was to be played between West Ham United and Wolves (That’s The Wolverhampton Wanderers F.C.) was instead played by their teams virtually on the official FIFA 2020 gaming platform. That’s right, it moved right into a league owned and operated gaming environment without a hitch. In the lower tiers of English Football, Leyton Orient F.C. decided to offer an entire FIFA tournament and demand was so strong from other professional eSports teams that they had to double the capacity of the tournament from 64 to 128 teams with all matches streaming from their team sites. Spanish soccer fans were given a treat when LaLiga teams Sevilla and Real Betis decided to stage a derby on FIFA 20 with their players controlling their actual avatars. 60,000 fans tuned into the quickly staged event. Imagine the viewership had it been promoted, or better yet, broadcast.
And finally and most fun of all, with the cancellation of the first race of the Formula One 2020 season in Australia, the eGamers and Formula One Management saw an opportunity and struck gold when they offered the “Not the Australian Grand Prix” event live on Twitch. It was a hoot with McLaren racing driver Lando Norris smashing records for views as well as going completely bonkers on the installation lap by thinking it was a race start and blasting through the field. Former driver Juan Pablo Montoya and his son participated in yet another F1 virtual race and to some degree fans were satisfied. Notably, the real-life goalkeeper for Real Madrid Thibaut Courtois participated in the virtual F1 race. How cool is that?
What makes all of this so remarkable and somewhat threatening to sports networks is that these events are happening on owned and operated team sites or on their Twitch accounts, directly connecting them with their fans. So the intermediation layer of an ESPN or NBC Sports is removed. Once these teams and leagues realize they can (and should) own their eGaming franchise rights without selling them to distribution partners like traditional sports networks the way these events are brought to fans will not be the same. If these athletes choose to spend their offseason participating in these virtual matches you can bet folks are going to follow them to these platforms.
So whatever you thought of eSports before now, folks like Chad Larsson’s Team Reciprocity #recpack winning $240K last week in the Gears of War Championships have been driving the eSports phenomenon forward for years. And now that we’re all wondering what the heck we’re going to do with all this time and no sports to watch, it seems like a sure bet that eSports is about to be discovered by non-gamers and traditional sports fans in a big big way. Expect an eSports cable channel on a very expensive tier from your cable company in the near future.