Ban on live sports action could be a boon for e-sports

NEW YORK • American sports have ground to a halt. For at least the next few weeks, there will be no National Basketball Association (NBA) or National Hockey League (NHL), no Major League Baseball (MLB) and no English football.

But one form of competition is still going strong despite the coronavirus pandemic - e-sports, the billion-dollar world of competitive video games which does not require much, if any, social gathering.

And, as sports fans, betting houses and TV networks stare at a calendar devoid of traditional sports, e-sports may get a chance to attract a new audience.

"It's an easy move for our industry from a hybrid of online and live events to all online," said Andy Miller, co-owner of NBA team Sacramento Kings and founder of NRG Esports. "Getting new tournaments and gameplay content up is not a costly endeavour."

The industry has ballooned in the past few years, buoyed by game publishers, investments by traditional sports-team owners and the backing of corporate sponsors.

Video games have global appeal and offer a huge variety - from sports titles to shooter titles. It is also live at all hours of the day because of its global footprint.

Moritz Maurer, chief executive of e-sports data platform GRID, said there will be roughly 55,000 professional e-sports competitions this year in the major titles, an average of more than 1,000 a week.

"As everyone cocoons in front of their screens, anything combining action, competition and social distancing will get a second look," said Lee Berke, a media consultant.

Even the NBA's Phoenix Suns are embracing e-sports. The team said on Thursday they would be playing the remainder of their games - not on a court, but in the NBA 2K virtual league. The games will be aired on streaming service Twitch.

One major challenge for e-sports has always been attracting new fans amid the always-cluttered sports calendar. This might be easier over the next few weeks.

"The reality is that they have to expand their audience beyond just active gamers," Maurer said. "There is a clear trend of growth in viewership that is driven by a demographic that likes to watch but does not necessarily play the games."

Broadcasters like ESPN and Fox Sports will lose plenty of live sports in the next few weeks, if not longer.

Miller, whose NRG Esports organisation operates teams in six different titles, said those networks might look to acquire e-sports rights as a way to continue showing live competitions.

A few leagues already have media partners. Earlier this year, YouTube scored exclusive rights to broadcast both major Activision Blizzard franchised leagues. ESPN has non-exclusive rights to Riot's League Championship Series, which airs on ESPN+ as well as YouTube, Twitch and Riot's website.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 15, 2020, with the headline 'Ban on live sports action could be a boon for e-sports'. Subscribe