Coronavirus and the virtual sports revolution

The suspension of live sport has thrust the virtual sports industry into the limelight. E-sport is the only area where athletes, and amateurs, can compete while practising social distancing.

In a country with more than 35 000 Covid-19-related deaths at the time of writing and an economy staring into an uncertain abyss, the fate of an incomplete football season really shouldn’t matter. But this is England and of all the things that don’t matter, football matters the most.

It matters so much that the strategy to ensure that Liverpool complete their march to Premier League glory was given the code name Project Restart. Members of Parliament waded into waters already muddied by myriad opinions. Player safety seemed to matter less than unfulfilled broadcast contracts.

The season has been given the green light to resume on 19 June behind closed doors. Not that fans will care about the fine print. No amount of highlights packages or slick documentary footage can satiate the need for live, unscripted drama. It is the thrill of the unknown as much as the aesthetic beauty and unravelling plotlines that make sport so enthralling.

Thankfully, there have been alternatives for Brits desperate for their footy fix. On 9 May, Leicester midfielder James Maddison claimed victory in the final of the ePremier League Invitational, a charity event raising funds for the National Health Service (NHS). Have no fear, no social distancing rules were flouted. Instead, his 5-1 victory over Sheffield United’s John Egan was contested on the Fifa20 video game, with all the action aired live on Sky Sports pay television and the BBC’s iPlayer streaming service.

This has not been the only game in town under lockdown. Virtual cricket, basketball and tennis tournaments – replete with commentary – have helped scratch the unremitting itch of supporters. Formula 1 and Nascar are just two motor-racing organisations that have brought drivers to the virtual realm. Even the Grand National, one of the most prestigious horse racing events in the world, broadcast its 173rd running on British free-to-air television channel ITV via computer simulation. The race generated £2.6 million (about R58 million) for the NHS. Potters Corner won the Virtual Grand National and the Virtual Grand National Race of Champions was won by Red Rum, a famous thoroughbred that last galloped in 1978. 

A billion-dollar industry 

Virtual sports, loosely defined as electronic games that mimic the real thing, have long held an important place in our society. John Burgeson, a mid-level programmer at IBM in Ohio, invented a rudimentary fantasy baseball game in 1961. It was clunky and hardly interactive, relying on a Major League Baseball player’s stats to churn out a random set of results. 

Today, a cursory glance at a screen would not be sufficient to differentiate between virtual and live sports. EA Sports, a division of American video game company Electronic Arts, had a turnover of $4.95 billion (about R90 billion) in 2019. It publishes household titles such as Fifa, Madden NFL and NBA Live. They are mostly recreational but under lockdown there has been a dramatic rise in viewership and participation in competitive gaming.

“The demographics of these fans largely resemble those found in traditional sports,” explains Kelvin Watt, a managing director at Nielsen Sports, a global analytics and insight provider to the sports industry. 

“People who would ordinarily be watching Formula 1, for example, have had their interest piqued and are streaming live racing. Having real drivers like Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc on board helps. We’re excited by this as it is an opportunity to grow the market.”

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Once normality resumes, Watt does not anticipate a huge surge in virtual sport’s popularity. Traditional sports fans have a finite amount of time outside of school or work hours and are not likely to abandon the relationships they have forged with their favourite teams and athletes. But there is hope that with the help of a different medium to peddle the product, some sports could attract a new audience.

“Formula 1 is a great example of a sport that has struggled to appeal to a younger market,” Watt says. “They weren’t drawing in the Gen-Zs [those born from around 1995 to the mid-2010s] and even millennials weren’t as on board as they’d have liked. The crossover with electronic gaming might boost their engagement.”

The idea of spending an entire afternoon (or day, depending on the code) watching a sports event is not an alien concept to most South Africans. Even “connection fans”, as Watt terms those whose relationship with the game has more to do with the camaraderie surrounding the event than the on-field action, are comfortable with dedicating a large amount of time to live sport. What is more alien is devoting the same energy to watching computer-generated images orchestrated by someone pressing buttons and controlling an on-screen avatar.

The rise in e-sports

This is not the case the world over. E-sports – competitive video gaming – is a massive moneymaking operation with a huge following. Global e-sports revenues are expected to reach in excess of $1 billion in 2020 despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. This is from the purchasing of games and merchandise as well as from advertising revenue and media rights. Had live events, with crowds measured in the tens of thousands, taken place, that figure might have reached $1.6 billion.

“It’s hard for us to realise how big this industry is,” says Ashton Muller, co-founder and manager of Goliath Gaming, one of South Africa’s leading e-sports organisations. “This is in part due to our access to fast internet and our weather, which makes outdoor activities possible all year round. But we are seeing a rise.”

Around the world, the annual growth of e-sports is 20%. In developed countries, especially in South Korea, widely considered to be the epicentre of e-sports, the rise has flattened as the market is already saturated. 

In many ways, the world of e-sports is not too dissimilar to traditional sports. There are contract negotiations and agents. Rivalries between teams and individuals are cultivated by fans and journalists, and those at the top make vast amounts of money through competition earnings and corporate endorsements. Kuro Takhasomi, the 27-year-old known by his pseudonym KuroKy, has earned almost $4 million playing the multiplayer battle game Dota 2.

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“The same things that appeal to traditional sports fans are prevalent in e-sports,” Muller says. “The assumption is that video gamers are just spotty kids who are uncoordinated and don’t have a social life. Maybe that’s true in some cases, but our gamers are professional athletes. They are obligated to keep their minds and bodies healthy and we incorporate yoga as part of our training programme. This is not just for fun. We’re providing a platform for our players to change their lives.”

One of Muller’s recent recruits is a testament to this. When he was just 16 years old, Thabo “Yvng Savage” Moloi from Forest Hill in southern Johannesburg entered a regional Fifa tournament. Although it was his first time competing in such a high-stakes environment, the teenager swept all before him and went home with R400 000. Now, he has a contract with Goliath Gaming and his parents do not complain as much about his “wasted” time in front of the television. 

Marrying traditional and virtual sports 

It’s not only game titles and fans that are blurring the lines between traditional and virtual sports. Renowned sports organisations that include Barcelona, the Golden State Warriors, Munster Rugby and Orlando Pirates have either partnered with or fielded e-sports teams. 

“It’s about adding another commercial string to their bow,” says Watt. “But the potential for knowledge-sharing is also interesting. One of the things we’ve found is that e-sports organisations tend to be a bit amateur. With experienced brands in the form of powerful sports franchises doing the driving, we will see an increase in professionalism in the way these e-sports teams are managed.”

The cross-pollination of ideas goes both ways. Sports channel ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series revealed that coaches in the NFL, America’s National Football League, have at least considered plays developed on the Madden computer game.

Could the lines blur to the point that the two worlds are indistinguishable from each other? Neither Watt nor Muller believe e-sports will ever replace traditional sports, but the amalgamation is under way. An e-sports event with $500 000 up for grabs was scheduled to be included in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. Further discussions are being held to include a similar event around Paris 2024.

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Like everything else in the world, this remains a hypothetical conversation. Global lockdowns owing to the coronavirus epidemic may have directed traditional sports fans towards their virtual replacements, but the future of both industries remains uncertain.

“It’s impossible to say what will happen,” Watt says. “We know we’re not yet at the peak of this virus and lockdown. I’ve read many reports that the coronavirus has been good for e-sports. It hasn’t. But it has thrust it into a more mainstream spotlight and that might have an impact on the way traditional sports are consumed.”

Programmes such as Zoom and Houseparty were not widely used before the lockdown but are now ubiquitous. Once live sport resumes, fans may be more inclined to watch online with friends rather than attend matches in person or travel across town for a braai. Who knows, maybe the content they’ll be watching between boerewors rolls and beers will be conducted by two pro gamers duelling in the virtual world.

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