No global event has ever affected sports like COVID-19. While other disasters have caused games to be postponed, the uncertainty of the virus poses a unique challenge. While sports leagues scramble to figure out how to reschedule events, fill airtime and stabilize sponsorships, some associations are pivoting to esports.
While live sports are on hold, leaving broadcasters in a lurch, streaming services are skyrocketing. According to influencer tracker Arsenal and streamer platform StreamElements, Amazon’s Twitch has jumped by 10 million hours watched in just two weeks. On March 22, 43 million hours were viewed on the platform.
“As this pause in live sports carries on, all of these leagues are trying to get creative with ways to spotlight different things,” such as esports broadcasts, said Joe Caporoso, svp of content and brand platforms for Whistle, which has produced content in the overlap of gaming and sports.
Among those millions of hours watched last Sunday was the Bahrain Virtual Grand Prix, a creative way to provide content in the absence of traditional racing. Formula One partnered with Veloce Esports, which ran an event for the Australian Grand Prix the previous weekend and made the event official in Bahrain.
The star-studded field of virtual drivers made for one of the most-watched esports broadcasts. Many of the best F1 drivers raced alongside top esports players, but it was the random celebrities who made this event one of the most-watched esports competitions last weekend. Golfer Ian Poulter, Olympic medalist Chris Hoy and even One Direction band member Liam Payne were all in the race.
“Nascar and Formula One are different in the athletic world because they are always working on technology,” said Freek Borghgraef, head of customer development for StriveCloud, a company helping soccer leagues in Europe embrace esports. “That’s different from many sports leagues. The CEOs, the big bosses of these football clubs, for example, are usually ex-athletes, and athletes aren’t the most technology-driven.”
That focus on technology has led the racing leagues to quickly adapt to esports versions of their events—with a lot of success. Borghgraef is trying to capture that same tailwind for European soccer leagues. StriveCloud is working with the Belgian Pro League and Proximus, a telecommunications company, to use EA Sports’ FIFA 20 to play matches and make up for lost content. The Swiss Super League has also approached them to do something similar for their competitions.
“We are trying to give these leagues a solution right now where we can get deep engagement digitally,” Borghgraef said. “These executives finally have a chance to focus on something beyond winning next week’s match and can actually look into digital opportunities.”
Most traditional American sports leagues have esports counterparts. The NBA has the NBA 2K League, the NFL has the Madden Championship Series, and the NHL and MLS have esports leagues as well. But these established leagues haven’t figured out how to quickly pivot in the absence of pro sports in the same way the racing leagues did.
With Formula One and Nascar providing models for success by combining pro athletes, esports players and celebrities, more sports leagues could quickly embrace these types of competitions to make up for all of the lost sports content.