It’s been five months now since the pandemic got started in the United States, since then we have added 3 million cases and show no signs of slowing down. In the wake of this incredible situation, traditional sports find themselves in an untenable situation. Play with incredible restrictions that include no crowds, stringent testing regimens, and constant monitoring of all players and staff, or don’t play. Some sports have found ways around this, these include UFC which continues to host fights on a semi-regular basis, the MLB, and the NBA who have both started or continued their seasons sans crowds. Other sports such as college football are canceling their season outright, leading to irate fans and a fall without a single College Gameday. Compounding these issues is the lower viewership of the sports still being played. You may ask yourself why is viewership down across the board for the sports still happening despite their pseudo-monopoly of ESPN and other sports network airtime? The answer is simple, it’s just not the same.
If you are like me and you grew up in a household that only had two channels on the TV, ESPN and ESPN 2, then you are well versed in what a sporting event looks like. Cheering crowds, high production value, casters in the upper deck, and support staff on the field getting you an up-close and personal look with interviews and sideline interactions. This is what makes sporting events so addicting. It’s the adrenaline, the action, the sense of being in a stadium with 100k screaming fans while you are sitting in your boxers eating Tostitos on the couch. That feeling isn’t there when the entire production feels artificial. No amount of piped-in crowd noise can mimic a screaming student section. Zoom interviews and pre-game shows simply don’t carry the same impact as their in-person counterparts. In the end, it comes off feeling flat, like a hollow shell of the version you are used to seeing. This disconnect makes it hard to suspend your disbelief long enough to enjoy the game in the same way. However, one sport seems to be more or less immune from this phenomenon, and that’s E-Sports. Let’s take a deep dive into why that is, and how it has allowed E-Sports to continue its unprecedented growth despite everything that is happening.
E-Sports are digitally native. Since the dawn of E-Sports, they have been played over an internet connection. Whether that was slaying your friends over Xbox live in a friendly game of Halo, or crushing their base with your zerglings in Starcraft, video game competition grew up online. Gradually, over the last decade, we have seen E-Sports blossom from sweaty backrooms to selling out major venues such as Madison Square Garden. In that time events have transitioned to in-person formats more and more frequently. Think Overwatch League, LCS, DOTA 2 International, or EVO. These events are held in major venues and draw thousands and thousands of spectators. They have taken on a traditional sporting event feel, but unlike traditional sports, the experience isn’t tied to the venue. Instead, the feel of an E-Sports event is tied to the game itself, and oftentimes the casters. Think about it like this, when you watch an E-Sports event you are watching a video game, something inherently digital. While you may have small overlays showing the faces of the players, the majority of the viewing experience is watching the game, and listening to the audio cues provided by the casters. This is the key difference between traditional sports and E-Sports that has allowed them to feel the same now as they did in the pre-pandemic world. Toss in some cameras in the gaming house to overlay the players and you have an experience that mimics the in person event to a degree that is simply not possible in a traditional sport setting.
On top of being able to replicate the feel of an in-person event better than traditional sports, E-Sports also benefits from the massive existing infrastructure for hosting events digitally. While College Football, the NBA, and others scrambled to develop entirely new processes that would allow their events to happen, E-Sports simply continued doing exactly what it had always done. While everyone thinks of the major events when you say the word E-Sports, underlying those events are hundreds or thousands of smaller qualifying events. These events function entirely online, hosting thousands of games that are often cast and streamed to Twitch and Youtube. When a major event has to swap to this format it’s as easy as adopting the same processes that are already in place for all the feeder events. Again, this not only made the events feel more natural, but also made the transition much cleaner as the infrastructure needed already existed and had been flushed out of many years.
In the midst of a pandemic E-Sports as a whole finds itself relatively unaffected. This means that while you may not be able to find any college football games on ESPN this year, maybe one day you will find the League World Championship. With the way things are going, it is starting to seem more and more likely.