Esports Gain Prominence As Major Leagues Go Dark

Courtesy of Fox Sports
The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Series features professional drivers like Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. competing in virtual races.

With the NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL all currently inactive, virtual sports tournaments now stand alone in a vacant market, and organizations are taking advantage as dealmaking heats up and broadcast networks welcome live competitive content.

With all four major American sports leagues currently on hiatus due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, esports is poised to break into mainstream in a way that it has never been able to before. With the NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL all currently inactive, virtual sports tournaments now stand alone in a vacant market, and organizations are taking advantage as dealmaking heats up and marquee broadcast networks welcome live competitive content.

"While bringing the community together to experience the sport live is very important to us, being a digital-first sport has allowed us to quickly adapt and move to online-only competition," a spokesperson for Riot Games tells The Hollywood Reporter. The Santa Monica-based developer is behind League of Legends, one of the world's top esports titles with various leagues across the globe. "Many of our regional leagues, including all four of our biggest regions — Korea, China, Europe and North America — have been able to resume their regular season through online formats after only brief hiatuses."

Other major esports leagues have made similar adjustments amidst the pandemic. Activision Blizzard's Overwatch and Call of Duty Leagues both  shifted March and April events from in-person contest to online-only tournaments, for instance. 

As a result of its shift to online events, Riot has seen viewership spike. When the company's popular LPL (Tencent's League of Legends Pro League in China) went on hiatus in January, Riot saw an influx of Chinese viewership of its Korean League, LCK, which resulted in a 42 percent year-over-year increase of hours consumed. When the LPL returned Feb. 28, a 30 percent year-over-year increase of average daily unique viewers came along with it.

There have also been increases in viewership on major streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube. "Having acquired the exclusive streaming rights to the Call of Duty League [in January], which is being organized online, YouTube’s market share is expected grow in 2020," says Rupantar Guha, senior analyst of thematic research at data firm GlobalData.

Twitch viewership overall increased 31 percent from March 8-22, according to a report from StreamElements and Arsenal.gg, surpassing 43 million hours watched daily. 

"We've received inquiries from a number of organizations about streaming on Twitch as large-scale events and experiences continue to be canceled in light of concerns around COVID-19," Twitch CEO Sara Clemens says. "These are difficult and uncertain times, but Twitch has always been about bringing people together, making connections, and creating communities around shared interests. Where possible, we are working with these groups to help bring those experiences to life." 

"It's hard for the gaming industry to thump their own chest, but usage is through the roof," an industry source tells THR. "Daily active users, retention, spending, game sales, everything is up. It's surging. When you have people home and not much to do work-wise, we see that games are a dominant form of entertainment."

For esports, organizations are still "aggressive" in making deals, the source says. "We have seen no slowdown. In fact, it's only been accelerating."

Even some non-virtual sports are taking a page from the esports playbook. Star NASCAR drivers including Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano are opting for virtual races as part of a partnership with NASCAR and online racing simulation game iRacing for the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Series. Fox Sports covered the first event live, as it would a traditional NASCAR event, with 35 drivers from across the circuit competing from their own personal setups. 

"The idea came from our CEO Eric Shanks," says Brad Zager, executive producer, head of productions and operations at Fox Sports. "He called me and said he had this idea to do iRacing and we should talk to that group. From the time Eric and I had that conversation, which was on Sunday night, to the following Sunday afternoon, it was on the air."

According to Nielsen, 638,000 homes and 903,000 viewers tuned in to the first eNASCAR iRacing Pro Series on Sunday, March 22. The event was the first time iRacing esports aired on Fox Sports. Last weekend's event, meanwhile, scored more than 1.3 million viewers across Fox and FS1.

"It’s filling the void for NASCAR fans," says Zager. In the process, it may also be opening the door for more esports coverage on the network. "We're always looking for compelling and engaging content and sometimes it takes something crazy and unfortunate to happen for ideas like this to come to the surface for broadcast," Zager says.

In addition to NASCAR, Fox Sports also aired the Madden NFL Invitational over the weekend. The live, online esports tournament saw eight NFL stars (Michael Vick, Matt Leinart, Juju Smith-Schuster, Ahman Green, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Orlando Scandrick, Derwin James and Antonio Cromartie) compete to raise awareness for CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 relief efforts. 

Meanwhile, the MLB is also currently exploring esports options amid the current postponement of its 2020 season, while the NBA has partnered with ESPN and ESPN 2 to broadcast a NBA 2K20 tournament between 16 current NBA stars starting April 3.

"We are considering a variety of virtual efforts that will help keep our fans engaged with baseball, most importantly while cautioning everyone that can to stay home and as safe as possible," says Jamie Leece, senior vp gaming and virtual reality at MLB. "If we can help keep people entertained while they have to stay home, then Major League Baseball is going to do that."

Last Friday, MLB hosted an online tournament with four of its stars (Trevor May, Amir Garrett, Hunter Pence and Blake Snell) competing in Sony's MLB The Show 20. The event was live-streamed on Twitch, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

"The interest in video games and esports has increased dramatically over the last few years and our players and clubs have shown interest in the space," says Leece. "Younger players especially are playing video games more and more. In fact, as we organized the inaugural Players Tournament, we found more players than expected who were interested in playing each other. So we anticipate there being a lot more engagement and activity in this area."

"Right now we're constantly looking at everything," says Zager. "We want people to know that we're taking it seriously, but, more importantly, we're having fun and giving people an escape here from everything going on."