Interest in the esports industry has been mounting over the past few years, but the global impact of the coronavirus crisis has drawn even more attention to the gaming and esports sector. Here are the esports trends to track in 2020.
It goes without saying that the COVID-19 crisis has come to define 2020. In addition to forcing us indoors and reconfiguring our social boundaries, quarantine has significantly altered the way we relate to media and entertainment.
This becomes especially evident when tracking activity in the esports space over the year. While other industries — particularly those that depend on live events — have struggled to keep up with the impacts of coronavirus, the esports industry has managed to adapt to the new environment and attract the attention of non-endemic brands and traditional sports organizations.
Esports tournaments are thriving under quarantine
The past few months have been unkind to traditional sports. As the pandemic continues to disrupt sports broadcasting schedules, leagues like the NFL and NBA have seen dips in Nielsen ratings in recent months. Esports leagues, on the other hand, have generally seen increases in viewership numbers.
The League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) is one example. Riot Games, the game’s developer, claims that the league’s Summer Split tournament garnered nearly 35 million hours’ worth of views, a 72% increase in viewing hours compared to last year’s numbers.
Forbes reports that this year’s Call of Duty League finals broke records by featuring the most concurrent viewers on a single Call of Duty esports stream at a peak of 331,000 viewers on YouTube. The league also surpassed one million subscribers on YouTube during that same weekend.
In context, it’s no wonder that esports leagues have taken to quarantine better than traditional sports leagues. While coronavirus has driven sports leagues to fill stadium seats with virtual crowds and cardboard models to make up for the inability to spectate games in person, esports audiences are well-equipped to watch their tournaments of choice online.
Expect more crossovers between sports athletes and esports pros
Even in quarantine’s earliest days, there were indications that sports fans and athletes would come to find a home in esports. When the NBA suspended their season in mid-March of this year, the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks came up with a clever solution. Instead of letting their players sit idly by, twiddling their thumbs in anticipation of the return to normal, the two teams threw a livestreamed, virtual basketball match in NBA 2K20.
As quarantine continued, other athletes followed suit. In April, the MLB partnered with Sony to host a virtual tournament within MLB: The Show that featured thirty baseball players. Weeks after the Suns and Mavs’ tournament, players like Kevin Durant and Trae Young competed in another NBA 2K20 tournament hosted by ESPN and the NBA.
One of the most notable events was the Twitch Rivals SuperGames tournament in April. The competition featured teams equally made up of Fortnite pros and traditional athletes. Streamers like DrLupo and Tfue joined athletes like Blake Nell and Trevor May to compete for the chance to win $1 million in charity money.
The series was a hit. Esports Charts reports that the series reached a peak of 324,627 concurrent viewers during the stream and accumulated a total of 1,393,793 hours watched.
Twitch Rivals, which continues to host weekly events, owes this success in large part to its format. The program’s flexibility allows pro players and non-gaming celebrities alike to co-mingle in hybrid teams, and the brevity of its competition schedule allows Twitch to respond dynamically to current trends and program their tournaments accordingly.
Fashion brands are making big moves in esports
When Gucci announced that they would be designing a piece in partnership with the prominent esports organization Fnatic, few could have expected that the result would be a $1,600, limited edition luxury watch. Nevertheless, all 100 pieces sold out in under 48 hours.
Gucci joins a host of other fashion and luxury brands breaking into esports. League of Legends recently announced a merch collaboration with BAPE, a partnership that follows last year’s Louis Vuitton collection of League of Legends-inspired clothing. Meanwhile, Puma has been signing deals with esports organizations left and right. Their fifth and most recent esports apparel partnership is with Gen.G, who will be dressing their players in Puma-branded shirts and pants.
These partnerships were born out of data-driven insights about the brand’s audience. In an interview with Vogue Business, Puma’s senior strategist of esports and marketing innovation Matt Shaw explained that 85% of the brand’s US male audience are gamers and that 75% of that demographic also watch gaming streamers on a regular basis.
Keep an eye on the rise of sim racing esports
Motorsports leagues were hit just as hard by this year’s event cancellations. In March, NASCAR and Fox Sports announced that they would be holding their very first eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series to make up for the canceled races, pitting drivers against each other in a simulated setting (hence the term “sim racing”).
Though completely unprecedented, the event set a televised esport ratings record by garnering 903,000 views. What’s more, the following week’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational event did even better, gaining 1.3 million viewers. These were significant milestones for the budding esport.
Motorsports organizations have begun taking note. Formula 1, for example, launched the F1 Mobile Racing Esports Series in September. “Mobile esports is a booming industry as Gen Zs and Gen Alpha spend more time gaming and on their phones,” Formula 1 Head of Digital Business Initiatives and Esports Julian Tan said in conversation with Insider Sport. “We see huge potential to develop our product set and expertise in this area in our ongoing effort to reach out and build our younger fanbase, providing ever more touchpoints for them to engage with Formula 1.”
BMW, who organizes sim racing competitions through its BMW Motorsport division, also recognizes esport’s potential to reach younger audiences. “The global commitment supports the positioning of BMW as a brand by enabling us to make a younger and more modern impact,” BMW Media Relations Manager for Esports Christophe Koenig said in an interview with The Drum. Sim racing esports just might bring new life to the motorsports industry, allowing leagues to reach more viewers (and players) from younger demographics.