PENSACOLA, Fla. – It was little surprise and ultimately hard to miss the boost in prominence esports, i.e. competitive video games, during the first two months of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
After years building massive online audiences, esports has broadened its place in the modern mainstream during the days of social distancing, filling the prime-time void on ESPN and other prominent sports networks.
In Pensacola, video games have even briefly replaced some youth sports and recreation.
Locally, the Navy is hosting esports tournaments in Madden 20 for service members and a new esports hub was recently founded at the OWA entertainment complex in Foley, Alabama.
Pensacola-based event management company Snap Soccer, which is affiliated with Perdido Bay FC, has hosted virtual soccer league and tournament play with FIFA on Xbox and Playstation consoles.
Players represent their full-time soccer club with logos while league organizers produce content like brackets, standings and individual honors such as “Player of the Month.”
With sponsorship from Puma and Soccer.com, even local players can compete for more than just bragging rights.
“Even when I was coming up, soccer and video games weren’t so mainstream online,” said 27-year-old Parker McIntosh, Snap Soccer’s eGaming director. “Major League Gaming was something that I remember and it was a pretty big deal. Now it’s kind of like the market is flooded.
“The access to technology today with all these kids, they know it better than we do.”
If the pandemic provided a platform for esports in the mainstream, it’s only because the activity had already built substantial foundational interest online.
A recent McKinsey report estimated esports’ U.S. audience to be just over 20 million fans, with over 80% male and younger than 35. Among U.S. men younger than 25, about 38% consider themselves esports fans, according to the same report.
That interest was built largely through streaming platforms like Twitch, which allows players to watch or broadcast other people playing video games. Twitch saw a record 1.4 million concurrent viewers and a 33% increase in unique channels last quarter, according to Forbes.
The pandemic provided an opening for esports’ jump to mainstream cable and broadcast television.
ESPN drew NBA stars like Kevin Durant, Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young and Devin Booker for an NBA 2K basketball tournament while raising $100,000 in coronavirus relief funds. On Fox, tournaments in Madden 20 and Formula 1 racing competitions found prime-time slots in broadcast and cable.
Racing broadcasts dominated television ratings on the major networks. iRacing claimed the top nine broadcasts and averaged 845,000 viewers. For contrast, ESPN’s 2K tournament final broadcast featuring Devin Booker drew 201,000 viewers.
While appealing to its traditional sports viewers, the choice to broadcast sports simulation games didn’t necessarily chase the biggest audiences in esports.
Multiplayer online battle arena titles such as League of Legends and DOTA 2, as well as battle royale games such as Fortnite, dominate the streaming space online, recording hours watched figures in the hundreds of millions each year.
Viewers on Couch Cup tournament streams number only in the few dozens, but interest in the competition still drew advertising from an international brand like Puma.
“At that point in time it seemed like the only way to access soccer with the kids at home,” McIntosh said. “… After we got Puma and Soccer.com as sponsors, there was definitely a buzz to compete on Xbox especially.
“A lot of kids see the prizes and we affiliate you with your club, so doing well earns your club a shoutout as well.”
On top of making inroads with mainstream media and traditional sports businesses, video games may well have risen in esteem for some families during the pandemic.
“I’ve had multiple parents tell me that all their kid looks forward to is Tuesday at 4 p.m. when the tournaments kick off,” McIntosh said. “That’s something where I certainly enjoy providing that outlet.”