While most major national and international sporting fixtures were postponed or cancelled for six months in 2020, many professional sportspeople and casual players turned to video games to keep in touch with their sporting community and still get their competitive fix. Paul Brierley finds out where video games fit into the sporting landscape

Kim Byung-sun has just been knocked out of the fight, the rest of his team battles on, feeling the pressure. It is match point for their opponents, but the Shanghai Dragons are determined to pull off a reverse sweep. As Kim returns to the fray, he knows something special is required to take the win. A quick switch of character, and Kim pulls out a sniper rifle. With his beleaguered team dropping around him, he lines up his opposition. Four lightning-fast headshots later, the enemy is in retreat, and the Shanghai Dragons are able to stabilise and win the round.

The commentators erupt at the skill required to turn the tables so fast, whipping the crowd into a frenzy, all be it a silent one. This is because the crowd is virtual, viewing an esports livestream, any display of emotion only coming from the excessive use of YouTube chat emotes. The game in question this time is Overwatch, an online first-person shooter where two six-person teams battle for map objectives.

This isn’t the first time Kim, the Korean star player better known in game as ‘Fleta’, has stunned viewers with an amazing display of accuracy. This particular performance allowed the Shanghai Dragons to win the ‘May Melee’ tournament, organised in response to the heavily disrupted regular season of competition by the global restrictions of Covid-19.

Along with many other esports, Overwatch was able to transition from in-person matches to an online model, allowing it to thrive during a time when regular sports have been severely impacted.

Humble Beginnings

Esports is any multiplayer video game played competitively for spectators, generally by professional gamers, and although the term doesn’t enter the lexicon until 1999, the activity can be traced back to the 1970s. The competitive gaming scene started at Stanford University in 1972 with a game called Spacewar. By 1980, Space Invaders was at its prime and Atari held the first organised competition for 10,000 Americans. Growth throughout the 1980s saw national and global championships, held by the likes of Sega and Nintendo, televised on MTV to public fanfare. These tournaments only reflected the types of games available at the time, participants always tried to gain the highest score possible in a set amount of time; just them versus the game rather than each other.

This changed in 1996 with the arrival of Quake, part of a newer genre of games called first person shooters. These games saw players using a variety of guns and handheld weapons to take out hordes of hell-spawned creatures, but it was a new mode that really got people hooked. Quake gave players the opportunity to go head to head with other humans either across a local network or, more importantly, the nascent internet. This form of direct competition finally allowed players to show how skilfully they could command the battlefield.

Other games were quick to follow Quake. In South Korea, it was a game called StarCraft that showed the potential of this burgeoning industry. Most of East Asia was experiencing a financial crisis as the millennium approached, and the many unemployed South Koreans were looking for cheap entertainment options. The country’s new high-speed internet network allowed a wave of new internet cafes to pop up and StarCraft soon gripped the nation. TV channels started to broadcast matches and professional players became national stars; the stage had been set for esports to prove there could be money made in competitive gaming.

Access to esports improved as broadcast moved away from traditional TV to streaming services like Twitch and YouTube

1972

SPACEWAR
The first example of a video game played competitively, on campus at Stanford University

1996

QUAKE
An early example of a multiplayer video game that made widespread use of local area networks and the internet to play

1998

STARCRAFT
Moving beyond accuracy and reaction time, StarCraft put strategy front and centre

2003

DEFENCE OF THE ANCIENTS
An evolution of the StarCraft formula, DotA started a new battle arena genre

2009

LEAGUE OF LEGENDS
Cited as the world’s largest esport, which has peaked at a viewership of 44 million

2015

OVERWATCH
Franchised teams compete for their hometown in a global league, like many traditional sporting league models

A serious contender

While the rest of the world was slower to catch on to esports, by 2010, we see the release of arena battle titles like Defence of the Ancients (DotA) and League of Legends (LoL), which used other gaming mechanics than just purely aiming skill. Players picked heroes with unique special abilities that could damage opponents, increase the performance of their allies or disrupt the enemies’ actions. This allowed for intricate team strategies to be developed and a more engaging narrative for the audience to play out.

Dota 2’s release in 2013 saw a juggernaut enter the arena, viewers eagerly awaiting this sequel. Prize money for events was increasing rapidly; in 2009 the global esports prize money was estimated at US$2m, compare that with the 2019 US$34m prize pool for the Dota 2 International competition alone. This meant some esports professionals have been able to amass career earnings of up to US$6.9m according Statista, many of whom are Dota 2 players.

The industry also established some franchised leagues, like the Overwatch League, to provide viewers, and potential sponsors, with a more consistent product, echoing the development of real-life sports.

These changes over a short period meant some impressive market growth, PwC evaluated the global worth to have increased from US$194m to US$980m between 2014 and 2019. Pre-Covid-19 this was forecast to have grown to US$1.9bn by 2023, though this will likely be revised up.

Access to esports also improved as broadcast moved away from traditional TV and cable channels to streaming services like Twitch, which launched in 2011, and YouTube. The broadcasts could be better tailored to gaming audiences rather than fit into the traditional sports model.

Global disruption

Here we arrive in 2020, like the crisis that fuelled esports’ initial growth in the late 1990s, the world finds itself in the grips of another event that leaves many people wondering what to do with their time. Much of the sports coverage people were used to consuming was struggling to keep fixture dates. Established esports quickly moved from any in-person competition to an online model, but it was the following jump of many traditional sports made to online events that has opened esports to a much wider audience.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, general viewer numbers for both esports and gaming streams rose from 4.8 billion watched hours in Q1 to 7.6 billion in Q2. In countries like New Zealand, which have experienced shorter lockdown periods and a faster return of traditional sporting fixtures, these higher viewing numbers have not dropped off. Duane Mutu, Director of LetsPlay.Live an esports organiser and promotor, commented that lockdown would have normalised the practice of watching esports for many viewers, where “they might have previously watched just sports or other media, but now it is acceptable to enjoy gaming”.

Some events were able to leverage their existing esports presence to replace cancelled dates. With all horse racing cancelled in the UK, the virtual Grand National went ahead regardless, with betting continuing as usual. Since 2017, the simulated race has been held alongside the regular Grand National, the finishing results being surprisingly similar. For those interested, it was a close finish this year with Potters Corner holding out against a fast approaching Walk In The Mill.

Also opting for a virtual replacement of cancelled events was Formula 1. It held a Virtual Spanish Grand Prix on the same day the real F1 race was meant to take place. It featured some current F1 drivers, other racing drivers and esports stars, going through the qualify procedures and then completing a 33-lap race. In tennis circles, Kiki Bertens managed to defend her 2019 Madrid Open win with a victory at the Virtual Madrid Open. Andy Murray was also able to claim victory in the men’s event, even though he had not played any tennis to that point in 2020 due to injury.

Sports stars also used their free time to pick up more traditional esports titles. The Australian NRL clubs, the Western Bulldogs and Wests Tigers, competed against one another in a Fortnite battle royale. Many of today’s young sports stars are just as at home on the field as they are online. Esports Games Association Australia’s Mat Jessep noted that promotions such as these would not solve the problems faced by long periods of cancelled sporting events, but they “could really form that incremental income, that come the next rainy day, there’s a bit of savings set aside that a sport can fall back on.”

Sustained Momentum

Even before Covid-19, there had been a steady change in the attitudes towards esports by the regular sporting community, organisations were exploring how to better integrate. Rugby’s legendary Eden Park in Auckland is currently developing a high-performance esports centre within the stadium. A place where esports teams from across New Zealand and Australia can train and hold events. Similar facilities can already be found at Twickenham and Sydney Cricket Grounds, where esports teams can leverage the training expertise, broadcast infrastructure and supports services that these world class stadiums offer. Both parties benefit from potentially attracting a new audience from cross pollination.

Time will tell whether esports will ever be considered just another regular sport, maybe one day we will see a top esports player holding Olympic Gold.

Many of today’s young sports stars are just as at home on the field as they are online

Can they follow through?

After a season of constant changes, Fleta and Shanghai Dragons found themselves in the league grand finals in early October. For the first time during the year, the top teams from the North America travelled to South Korea, through isolation, to battle against the best of Asia.

Unfortunately for the Dragons, even with the best win-loss record this season, they were not able to beat last years’ victors and win the championship. With interest only growing, there is always next year.

1972

SPACEWAR
The first example of a video game played competitively, on campus at Stanford University

1996

QUAKE
An early example of a multiplayer video game that made widespread use of local area networks and the internet to play

1998

STARCRAFT
Moving beyond accuracy and reaction time, StarCraft put strategy front and centre

2003

DEFENCE OF THE ANCIENTS
An evolution of the StarCraft formula, DotA started a new battle arena genre

2009

LEAGUE OF LEGENDS
Cited as the world’s largest esport, which has peaked at a viewership of 44 million

2015

OVERWATCH
Franchised teams compete for their hometown in a global league, like many traditional sporting league models

A serious contender

While the rest of the world was slower to catch on to esports, by 2010, we see the release of arena battle titles like Defence of the Ancients (DotA) and League of Legends (LoL), which used other gaming mechanics than just purely aiming skill. Players picked heroes with unique special abilities that could damage opponents, increase the performance of their allies or disrupt the enemies’ actions. This allowed for intricate team strategies to be developed and a more engaging narrative for the audience to play out.

Dota 2’s release in 2013 saw a juggernaut enter the arena, viewers eagerly awaiting this sequel. Prize money for events was increasing rapidly; in 2009 the global esports prize money was estimated at US$2m, compare that with the 2019 US$34m prize pool for the Dota 2 International competition alone. This meant some esports professionals have been able to amass career earnings of up to US$6.9m according Statista, many of whom are Dota 2 players.

The industry also established some franchised leagues, like the Overwatch League, to provide viewers, and potential sponsors, with a more consistent product, echoing the development of real-life sports.

These changes over a short period meant some impressive market growth, PwC evaluated the global worth to have increased from US$194m to US$980m between 2014 and 2019. Pre-Covid-19 this was forecast to have grown to US$1.9bn by 2023, though this will likely be revised up.

Access to esports also improved as broadcast moved away from traditional TV and cable channels to streaming services like Twitch, which launched in 2011, and YouTube. The broadcasts could be better tailored to gaming audiences rather than fit into the traditional sports model.

Global disruption

Here we arrive in 2020, like the crisis that fuelled esports’ initial growth in the late 1990s, the world finds itself in the grips of another event that leaves many people wondering what to do with their time. Much of the sports coverage people were used to consuming was struggling to keep fixture dates. Established esports quickly moved from any in-person competition to an online model, but it was the following jump of many traditional sports made to online events that has opened esports to a much wider audience.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, general viewer numbers for both esports and gaming streams rose from 4.8 billion watched hours in Q1 to 7.6 billion in Q2. In countries like New Zealand, which have experienced shorter lockdown periods and a faster return of traditional sporting fixtures, these higher viewing numbers have not dropped off. Duane Mutu, Director of LetsPlay.Live an esports organiser and promotor, commented that lockdown would have normalised the practice of watching esports for many viewers, where “they might have previously watched just sports or other media, but now it is acceptable to enjoy gaming”.

Some events were able to leverage their existing esports presence to replace cancelled dates. With all horse racing cancelled in the UK, the virtual Grand National went ahead regardless, with betting continuing as usual. Since 2017, the simulated race has been held alongside the regular Grand National, the finishing results being surprisingly similar. For those interested, it was a close finish this year with Potters Corner holding out against a fast approaching Walk In The Mill.

Also opting for a virtual replacement of cancelled events was Formula 1. It held a Virtual Spanish Grand Prix on the same day the real F1 race was meant to take place. It featured some current F1 drivers, other racing drivers and esports stars, going through the qualify procedures and then completing a 33-lap race. In tennis circles, Kiki Bertens managed to defend her 2019 Madrid Open win with a victory at the Virtual Madrid Open. Andy Murray was also able to claim victory in the men’s event, even though he had not played any tennis to that point in 2020 due to injury.

Sports stars also used their free time to pick up more traditional esports titles. The Australian NRL clubs, the Western Bulldogs and Wests Tigers, competed against one another in a Fortnite battle royale. Many of today’s young sports stars are just as at home on the field as they are online. Esports Games Association Australia’s Mat Jessep noted that promotions such as these would not solve the problems faced by long periods of cancelled sporting events, but they “could really form that incremental income, that come the next rainy day, there’s a bit of savings set aside that a sport can fall back on.”

Sustained Momentum

Even before Covid-19, there had been a steady change in the attitudes towards esports by the regular sporting community, organisations were exploring how to better integrate. Rugby’s legendary Eden Park in Auckland is currently developing a high-performance esports centre within the stadium. A place where esports teams from across New Zealand and Australia can train and hold events. Similar facilities can already be found at Twickenham and Sydney Cricket Grounds, where esports teams can leverage the training expertise, broadcast infrastructure and supports services that these world class stadiums offer. Both parties benefit from potentially attracting a new audience from cross pollination.

Time will tell whether esports will ever be considered just another regular sport, maybe one day we will see a top esports player holding Olympic Gold.

Can they follow through?

After a season of constant changes, Fleta and Shanghai Dragons found themselves in the league grand finals in early October. For the first time during the year, the top teams from the North America travelled to South Korea, through isolation, to battle against the best of Asia.

Unfortunately for the Dragons, even with the best win-loss record this season, they were not able to beat last years’ victors and win the championship. With interest only growing, there is always next year.

Many of today’s young sports stars are just as at home on the field as they are online

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