COVID-19: E-sports primed to fill void

As Covid-19 takes hold across the globe, mass sports events are being subjected to cancellations, or players plying their trade in front of empty stadia.

Local Australasian competitions including Super Rugby and the NRL, are in a state of flux, and the Chappell-Hadlee cricket series was been canned after initially playing in an empty SCG.

TV sports producers are scrambling to fill content in prime-time weekend slots usually abundant at this time of year due to summer to winter code crossovers, and the conclusion of high-profile competitions like the English Premier League (EPL) and the NBA.

Fortunately, broadcasters such as Sky have vast archives of past events, and the climate can be tempered by showing replays of feel-good sporting nostalgia. How long that option is viable to the fickle viewing public is debatable.

Sports radio stations are also up a certain creek without a certain instrument, as shows dedicated to either live commentary or talking about recently-concluded games, will become increasingly bereft of topics. Some holes can be plugged by reverting to long periods of talkback, but this can quickly become tedious. Advertisers can also pull their commitments if the populous shifts the dial to other stations, or to online music streaming platforms.

In light of this, the multibillion-dollar e-sports industry has been handed a golden opportunity to capitalise on the absence of content.

No longer (just) the domain of un-athletic kids who pursued their sport or combat fantasies through an electronic medium, individuals and teams now compete for big prize money via organised leagues around the globe.

In the wake of the postponement of NBA, EPL, and threat to the Tokyo Olympics, e-sports will more than likely see further uptake in participation.

Major-league soccer team the Portland Timbers have already demonstrated initiative, albeit tongue in cheek, by playing FIFA against their rivals and live-streaming to their fans via Facebook. The Phoenix Suns took on the Dallas Mavericks at NBA2K over the weekend. Instead of being at the Australian Grand Prix, McLaren driver Lando Norris raced against Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois in a virtual version.

Tekken 7 E Black player Daniel “Wowzer” Cossington, representing New Zealand at the IESF World Championship in Seoul, South Korea 2019

John McRae, managing director, VADR.com.au,  and founder of e-sports broadcaster LPL, sees the current environment as an opportunity for e-sports to take “centre stage as an alternative to traditional sport, and is likely the last man standing in entertainment and sport for the foreseeable future”.

McRae has seen “a huge spike in internet traffic from casual gaming in places like Italy and China due to people turning to their consoles whilst stuck at home. “

E-sports are not completely immune to the effects of the virus.  “Globally, we have seen the cancellation of physical events or events proceed without audiences due to COVID-19” but unlike other sports, e-sports “has a natural advantage, as its players can play remotely,” says McRae.

“It’s an opportunity for the e-sports and sports sector to work hand in hand to maintain morale and engagement with fans during this difficult time’ he adds.

To be successful in sports, physical attributes are obviously paramount, but the mental side of the game is increasingly pertinent, as any successful athlete will tell you.

So will the health crisis create a paradigm shift to an inverted world of athletes gravitating from the field to mum’s basement?

Time will tell.