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Solutions to the global sports shutdown?

Millions of sports fans sheltered at home due to the Coronavirus pandemic are desperately looking for alternatives to fill the void left by the shutdown of live sports. At the same time, without regular live sports programming broadcasters and leagues are beginning to run low on original content they can deliver to these isolated fans.

This has presented a unique opportunity for esports and virtual sports to keep fans engaged.

Twitch, the leading live streaming platform for gamers went from 982 million total hours watched in February 2020 to over 1.1 billion hours in March 2020, an impressive 20% increase. As much as the global lockdown has proved a boon for esports viewership, traditional sports broadcasters such as ESPN are suffering.

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If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them… Sort Of

Attempting to arrest this slide, ESPN decided to get in on the action with a self-styled “epic Esports Day” with 12 consecutive hours of programming on April 5th. The programming for this esports marathon was varied across professional esports, virtual sports simulations and athlete gaming streams.


Four Options For Virtual Sports & Esports

1. Pure Computer Simulation — A game engine runs the tournament with no human control. Results determined by game algorithms.

B/R GOAT Sim — Bleacher Report put together a 32-team simulation tournament in EA Sports’ Madden video game. Rosters are comprised of the best players to ever represent each team (Greatest Of All Time) and run as a full-game simulation. Heavily integrated with B/R’s betting channels.

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Current Super Bowl MVP, Patrick Mahomes, cheering on his virtual self via Twitter.

Virtual Grand National — The 30-minute broadcast of the simulated horse race drew an average audience of 4.3 million. In the UK alone, £2.6 million (US$3.2 million) was bet on the race outcome.

2. Athletes competing in general gameplay (entertainment) — Athletes competing in a video game (either as themselves or other teams) but not using their specific sporting skill set. Can also include streaming of athletes in non-sports related video game titles.

NBA 2K Players Tournament— 16 current NBA players, including Kevin Durant and Trae Young, face off in a single-elimination NBA 2K20 tournament for charity. Opening Round games were broadcast on ESPN as part of their Esports Day.

3. Athletes competing in skill-specific gameplay (competitive) — Recreating, as far as possible, the conditions athletes would normally compete in and the skills they would use.

F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix— Formula One’s debut virtual event pulled in 3.2 million online viewers. Participants were a mix of professional F1 drivers and celebrities, all using the official Formula 1 2019 PC video game developed by Codemaster to race around Bahrain’s Sakhir circuit. The first race was won by Renault’s Chinese test driver, Guanyu Zhou, beating out professional Formula 1 racers Lando Norris from McLaren, and Nicholas Latifi from Williams. The second edition was hosted as a part of the ESPN Esports Day.

4. Professional Esports — Esports competitions running modified tournaments with elite competitors and established leagues.

ESL Pro League Season 11— The new season of ESL’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) broke viewership records with 268,000 concurrent viewers on the second day of the month-long tournament. Teams are competing for a share of the US$750,000 prize pool.


What Works Best For Each Sport?

There isn’t a definitive answer for which approach is best for which sports, and a certain answer in such an uncertain time should be received with a healthy dose of critical analysis. There are pro’s and con’s to each option, but the fundamental question remains the same: what will keep your fans engaged?

Ultimately the answer will differ depending on what each fan wants to see from their sport experience. Fans interested in a genuine contest of skill and determination would likely to gravitate towards skill-specific simulations or potentially even branch out to professional esports. Whereas fans who follow sports for the personalities may be happy to watch their favourite athletes in a general simulation, even with a relatively lower level of skill (KD is a global superstar for his ability with a basketball, not with a controller). Other fans focussed on sports betting may be happy to follow pure computer simulations if it mimics the games they usually bet on.

The options are also narrowed by how well each sport translates to the virtual realm. For instance, it’s a lot easier to mimic the real-life skills of Formula 1 via a motorsport racing simulator than it is for team contact sports such as football or ice hockey.


Where To Now?

The myopic view is that Teams, Leagues and Federations (as well as their partners across broadcast, sponsorship and betting) use virtual sports and esports as merely a band-aid to pass the time until live in-person sports resume. Although it’s highly unlikely any of these options will replace traditional sports, the current shutdown presents a unique opportunity to innovate. By diversifying their offerings these stakeholders have the potential to open up new fan bases which will lead to new revenue streams in the longer term. If this leads to a more sustainable business model it clearly serves sports and their fans best, not just during this lockdown, but well into the future.


Sports Tech Feed

If you’d like to learn more about some of the issues discussed here then Sports Tech Feed — The Global Sports Technology Podcast is your perfect resource. Recent interviews have covered the legal implications of the global sport shutdownInvestment, Partnerships & Growth Opportunities in Esports; and taming the Wild West of professional Esports.

This article was first published on Medium.


Thomas Alomes is a global leader in sports tech ecosystem growth and development