As Traditional Sports Leagues Pause During the Coronavirus, Esports Could Fill Some Gaps

Many esports already take place online, so backup plans are more readily available

Esports may not need large-scale events to thrive. Getty Images
Headshot of Mitch Reames

This week, it felt like another major sporting event was canceled just about every 15 minutes. After two Utah Jazz players tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 on Wednesday night, the entire NBA season was suspended. Thursday morning, the MLS, MLB, NHL, UEFA, Rugby’s Six Nations, Formula One, tennis events, golf tournaments, marathons and, in a considerable development, March Madness, have all been canceled or postponed.

So what fills the sudden void created by the absence of these sports? Esports could become part of the answer.

Competitive video games are becoming big business and, although they run mainly on streaming platforms like Twitch.TV and YouTube, some have made the jump to linear television.

“First, a preface: People, in general, are more important than the sports or esports worlds,” said Rod ‘Slasher’ Breslau, an esports journalist. “That being said, this is going to be huge for the esports industry. Traditional sports leagues are shutting down, and people are staying home both for work and entertainment. Those two major things lead directly to watching and participating in the video game industry.”

"Traditional sports leagues are shutting down, and people are staying home both for work and entertainment. Those two major things lead directly to watching and participating in the video game industry."
—Rod Breslau, esports journalist

China has already seen a skyrocketing video game industry in the wake of the outbreak. Games like League of Legends and Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) were twice as popular during the last few months as they were during the same period in 2019. Now that same trend could extend to the rest of the world.

That isn’t to say coronavirus is totally positive for esports, though. China is the primary driver of esports audiences and revenue, and the country’s League of Legends and Overwatch teams haven’t been able to play at all.

But esports have backup plans that traditional sports do not. While all the major sports leagues are being postponed, China’s League of Legends Pro League is starting back up. Riot Games, the developer of League of Legends, moved all competitions online.

While not ideal, online-only events are not new to esports. Only the rare esport is played in front of a packed crowd. Most regular season matches are held in small studios, sometimes with a live audience, or through online connections. There are fewer event staffers, less contact between players and not as much reliance on ticket sales to drive esports forward.

“It’s much more realistic to hold an event inside of a studio and have it go flawlessly than do an event in a stadium,” Breslau said. “Crowds in recent events have been awesome for esports, but esports have been playing without crowds for a long time. Esports has a huge advantage in that they can continue competition. We will lose out on the huge regional events and international competitions, but the esports scene as a whole will be able to continue.”

With seemingly every sporting event on the chopping block, esports could fill those voids. Turner and CBS lost 67 games of sought after programming with the loss of men’s March Madness. ESPN lost the women’s tournament as well as nearly every other sport that makes up 24 hours of daily programming. Both companies also have esports shows.

Turner’s ELEAGUE was one of the first programs to bring esports over to linear television and has broadcasted events in Rocket League, CS:GO, Dota 2 and more esports. ESPN Esports has been a leader in breaking esports news and recently expanded past articles into the broadcast shows that ESPN is known for.

“ESPN and Turner have already broadcasted several esports events,” Breslau, a former ESPN employee, said. “Given the circumstances, with March Madness being canceled and ESPN being a 24-hour sports network, then it makes sense for gaming and esports content to be picked up instead.”

It’s unprecedented territory for the sports world. With everything grinding to a halt, networks, leagues—and their associated employees—are scrambling to figure out how to move forward. While esports seems a decent likely stopgap, there isn’t enough infrastructure in place to outright replace all the content that comes from the sports world. However, esports has been thrust to the center stage, and it could bring in new interest and fans.

Mitch Reames is a freelance writer based in southern Oregon. A 2017 graduate of the University of Oregon school of journalism and communications, Reames covers a wide range of industry topics including creativity, agencies, brands, esports and more.