COVID-19 is spreading at an alarming rate. The more people are infected with the virus, the quicker the virus spreads. As of March 29th, there are 6,255 cases in Canada and 63 deaths. While the United States now has more positive cases of COVID-19 than any other country in the world and has over 2,000 deaths, 1,000 of which have come this week. People around the world are starting to take social isolation and quarantine seriously. Society is stuck in their houses all day and will be looking for entertainment. One of the biggest entertainment industries is the sports industry. Unfortunately for fans, most leagues have been suspended. The NBA suspended play on March 11th after a Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for Covid-19. The NHL and the MLS both followed the example set by the NBA by suspending play the following day. None of the leagues have a timeline as to when they will resume play. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility that all the leagues cancel their seasons so they do not disrupt the 2020-2021 season. Other sports have already completely canceled their events such as the NCAA March Madness tournament and The Masters, even the Summer Olympics in Tokyo have been canceled.
There is one sports industry that has managed to overcome COVID-19 and all of the social restrictions that it has caused. The world of esports is on the rise and this temporary time of isolation could be an opportunity for esports to spread its wings into the mainstream. Traditionally, esports have tried to copy mainstream sports and hold live tournaments. This has been successful in the past, in 2017 the League of Legends World Championship was played at the sold-out “Bird’s Nest” stadium in Beijing, a building that has a capacity of 80,000 people. Just like traditional sports, these major competitions that were being held in front of large crowds had to also be canceled. The first-person shooter Counterstrike: Global Offensive was the first esport to start canceling events after playing in an empty stadium in Poland in late February.
Most of these multiplayer video games are meant to be played remotely on an online server at the amateur level. It is only when players begin to reach the professional ranks that they begin to move offline and play on private servers. The advantage of having a better internet connection and lower “ping” is invaluable. This is why esports are generally played in person as teams come from all over the world to compete against each other.
League of Legends is probably the most popular esport in the world. The 2019 World Championships had over 100 million viewers, including 44 million concurrent viewers during the final round on November 10th. The North American League, known as the LCS was one of the first esports to move digitally. To make sure that players are not cheating, they are broadcasting the games on delay, using webcams, screen recording, and only allowing in-game communication through a Discord server operated by League of Legends.
Professional sports teams have also recognized the opportunity to make money in esports, investing in online versions of their sports. The MLS has a number of teams that also own FIFA squads and are using their platform to grow their league. Cathal Conlon, New England Revolution’s vice president of marketing said in an interview with ESPN “We had to think about the service we provide for our fans. We’re a sports team. Sports have always been a relief and a distraction from the news cycle. We wanted to find a way to provide an outlet for our fans.” This is also an opportunity for these organizations to continue to make money while their main sources of income are suspended.
Many of these organizations are still paying their employees during the shutdown unless you’re Jeremy Jacobs the owner of the Boston Bruins. Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment own the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors, Toronto FC, and Toronto Argonauts as well as all the facilities that the teams play in. While it is a major corporation, that is still a large amount of money they will be paying employees who are not currently working. Their only source of revenue at the moment is their NBA 2K team Raptors Uprising. While the Golden State Warriors, who moved from Oakland to San Francisco in a brand new arena this season purchased the Golden Guardians Esports team in 2017. They have teams that play World of Warcraft, Teamfight Tactics, League of Legends, and Apex Legends. Just like MLSE, this is their only form of income at the moment.
Streaming numbers are going through the roof at the moment and esports organizations will be hopeful that the lack of sports entertainment can introduce new fans to their product. It could also see more major sports organizations invest in esports as an alternate source of revenue.
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