Sport finds Esports in lockdown
Updated: Nov 4, 2020
In a world with little to no live sport, Esports is having a moment.
Three weeks into the lockdown and the world of sports has truly changed. At long last the IOC came out and postponed the Tokyo Olympics to July, 2021, Wimbledon has been cancelled for the first time since World War Two, the Premier League has pushed back any announcement of when the season may continue and rugby has seen its season decided by the numbers, deciding who goes up and who goes down.
However, a shining light has emerged in this bleak time, the world of Esports is having its moment. It has pushed aside some opinions about it not being for real sports fans and being just 'for the kids' and has exploded onto the mainstream. Some sport organisations and players have been quick to react and grab this opportunity with both hands, to drive either a new or deeper relationship with their fans, to keep sponsors happy or use their influence to raise money for those in need.
Here are a few examples that have stood out to me over the last few weeks.
Football and FIFA20 are bringing teams, players and fans together
One of the first to react to live sport being paused was the social media team at English football team Leyton Orient. The O's dropped a tweet on March 15th looking for 63 teams to join them in a FIFA20 knock-out tournament. Well it seems this is what football was looking for, within a couple of days 128 teams from across the footballing world had entered the tournament.
The competition saw teams rolling out their esport pros and pro players to take part in the competition. Games took place daily using the trusted platform of FIFA20, a game well known amongst football fans, with Wolves taking home the trophy after defeating FC Groningen in the final. In the process of getting down to the final two, the tournament known as #UltimateQuaranTeam has raised well over £50k on its Just Giving page.
The competition has grabbed the entire world of football from clubs to players through to fans, driving huge amounts of talkability. To date, the hashtag alone has received over 57k mentions, generating over 735m impressions, and thats just on Twitter. Wolves weren't the only winners here, as it's the team at Leyton Orient who should be given the applause for creating a moment like this, that not only entertains but raises money for those in need.
Over in Spain, the countries top league, its' title sponsor Santander and EA Sports came together to create #LaLigaSantanderChallenge - the tournament played between nineteen players from Spain's top league took part on March 22nd. It has been reported by the league, that over one million viewers tuned in to watch. The competition was available to stream live via Twitch, YouTube and LaLigaSportsTV. In addition to this, games were also shown via broadcast partners Movistar+ and Eleven Sports. The hashtag on Twitter delivered some big impact over a few days, with over 2billion impressions and 106k mentions.
Finally, Sunday April 5th saw Gareth Bale and his Esports support team, create the Combat Corona Fifa20 competition to raise money for UNICEF, involving some of the world's leading footballers - Paulo Dybala, Mason Mount, Dan James, Kieran Tierney and more joining Bale. Action was live streamed across Twitch and updates provided by official social media partner SportBible. As you would expect with Bale and Dybala's names involved, the event generated lots of media interest and lit up social with over 164m impressions of the hashtag on Twitter.
Man Utd's Daniel James scores against Chelsea FC's Billy Gilmour in the Combat Corona Challenge
Nascar becomes eNascar and draws in millions of TV viewers
Another sport that has moved its efforts to Esports is NASCAR. The iconic racing organisation has long had a strong presence in Esports with its iRacing property, but in March it threw everything it had into Esports. Not only has it had the majority of its official drivers take part in the races, but it also broadcast the races on Fox Sports. Two races in and the results have been strong. According to Nielsen, the first week attracted over 900k viewers (on FS1), with the second weekend getting broadcast time on FOX and FOX's FS1 to gain over 1.3m viewers. The second race also saw actress Rita Wilson, sing the national anthem.
“With the way it is happening right now in the world, I think everyone is looking for a distraction and is looking for some entertainment,” NASCAR Chief Digital Officer - Tim Clark said.
The switch to Esports has brought success and there is a lot of excitement coming out of NASCAR HQ about what this can do for iRacing and NASCAR in the future.
NASCAR Managing Director of Gaming Scott Warfield commented, “When you start wondering why we are in this [Esports] space, it’s how to grow the pie and reach a younger, more diverse fan,” He went on to say, “Maybe we’re starting to see that.”
F1 bring drivers and celebs together to race
On March 20th, Formula 1 announced the launch of a new F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix series, featuring a number of current F1 drivers and celebs, with the objective of providing its fans with ongoing entertainment from the world of F1.
“We are very pleased to be able to bring some light relief in the form of the F1 Esports Virtual GP, in these unpredictable times, as we hope to entertain fans missing the regular sporting action. With every major sports league in the world unable to compete, it is a great time to highlight the benefits of Esports and the incredible skill that’s on show.” said Julian Tan, Head of Digital Business Initiatives and Esports.
The first race took place on March 22, and according to Tan pulled in over 3m online viewers and just under an estimated 1.3m TV viewers. The race created to replace the Bahrain Grand Prix, was shown across YouTube, Twitch and Facebook, with traditional broadcasters such as Sky Sports providing linear coverage. With the 2020 F1 season no closer to beginning, the virtual Grand Prix series continued with the second race held at Albert Park, home of the Australian Grand Prix. Ferrari's Charles Leclerc took the win with an impressive performance, however, Austrian motorsport star Philipp Eng has warned any F1 drivers thinking of mixing it with professional Esports drivers to stay away.
"Nobody will dispute the enormous talent Charles Leclerc has. But I think that normal racing drivers would simply have no chance against die-hard sim racers." said Philipp Eng.
NBA and WNBA go full court Esports
NBA is the organisation, that many have said has led the way with regards to Esports. Back in 2017, the NBA2K league launched, with 17 professional teams registering . Therefore, it is no surprise that the NBA was one of the first to turn to Esports to keep their fans engaged.
Launching on April 3rd, the NBA2K Tourney began, involving 16 NBA players pitting it out against each other to determine who is crowned the NBA2K20
Champion on April 12th. Broadcast across ESPN properties, the players are going head to head to try and win a $100k donation for a charity of their choice, according to the NBA Players Association's press release. A a week in to the event, and it has already delivered huge numbers with over 7billion impressions of the tournament's hashtag from 31k users on Twitter.
On April 17th, the WNBA will hold its draft as scheduled, but will turn to video conferencing to deliver it. The Commissioner, Cathy Engelbert hopes that by continuing with the draft in a virtual form, it still allows the players to have their moment in the spotlight.
“The WNBA Draft is a time to celebrate the exceptional athletes whose hard work and dreams are realised with their selections in the draft,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
The draft will be broadcast by WNBA partner ESPN, with Engelbert announcing each draft pick live, with players streaming in from wherever they are.
Zwift bring in the peloton
Cycling team Mitchelton-Scott has partnered up with Zwift to launch a series of rides, 16 in total, giving fans the opportunity to ride with the pros, or more likely, see the back of them. Eurosport has been giving support to the platform, and has broadcast live rides such as a virtual Tour of Flanders. The race featured top riders and was won by Olympic road race champion Greg Van Avermaet, winning by 12km according to cycling publisher, Cycling Weekly.
With most of the pros, that have competed on Zwift, wearing team kits, it's most likely this will have provided some good news to sponsors, who will have been suffering like many others with the season being postponed.
Zwift has reaped the rewards of people staying at home, and last weekend (April 5) recorded an all time high for concurrent users, with over 34k people using the platform. However, not everything has run smoothly for the online cycling platform, just ask pro cyclist Thomas De Gendt.
The Belgian rider, a two time Tour de France stage winner, got kicked off Zwift for foul play when he hit 550 watts on a climb, as Zwift thought he was cheating! De Gendt tweeted the company saying I'm having issues due to having "superhuman power".
In summary, Esports is certainly having its moment, leading live gaming stream Twitch has seen figures increase, as well as many reports stating that the casual gamer is playing for longer. But in the world of sports marketing, it has been a smart and in some cases, a needed move to pivot efforts to Esports. In a time of no live sport, some are using Esports to raise money for those in need, others are using it as a platform to engage their audiences and some have needed to do it, to keep sponsors happy.
In a world that is facing one of its biggest challenges, sport continues to offer hope and a distraction from the daily struggles, even if it is presented to fans in a slightly new light.