COVID-19 Changes the Game for Sports and esports

Empty stadium seats

A month ago, we woke up in a new reality that feels like a very long, slow episode of Black Mirror. Every ripple effect felt by the outbreak of Covid-19 has been unprecedented. Borders closed, cities shuttered, government bailouts, tax day suspended; new terms like “social distancing“ and “flatten the curve“ are part of daily (if not hourly) conversation. Every day brings something new and often unthinkable to the table.

Sports is one of the many industries feeling the immediate effect of this outbreak. In early March, America was gearing up for one of the most fan-engaged periods in the annual sports calendar. The NBA had a quarter of regular season play left (not to mention the playoffs); NCAA’s March Madness tournament and NHL‘s Stanley Cup Playoffs were about to begin; The PGA Masters and MLB season opening games were weeks away as well. All this and more have been canceled or postponed indefinitely. The $160 billion sports industry is effectively frozen. (For more information, is keeping a running list of all canceled sporting events around the world.)

A recent article in Adweek asked the question: during this outbreak, will esports fill America’s need for competitive entertainment? Results from the MRI-Simmons Sports Fan Engagement Study reflect trends among fans to seek and engage with sports-related content on their digital devices. Nearly one-quarter of US adults – 57 million people – say they already enjoy live streaming sporting events to their TV, and 40 million people (16% of adults) would watch more sports online if they had more opportunities to stream events. This begs the question - could traditional sports fans gravitate to digital sports as well?

Esports companies seem to think so. As the reality of life through Covid-19 settles in for all of us, esports companies have announced plans to keep the show rolling by moving tournaments to all-online formats. For games like League of Legends, this is a return to their roots; early on, all tournaments and coverage of League of Legends for wider audiences were only available through online streams.

Although in-person esports tournaments are also paused globally, tournaments can (and will) be played online and streamed for online viewers. In fact, some esports platforms have already cited increased traffic to their events as a result of the world staying home. According to our research, 16% of US adults (and nearly 1-in-3 adults ages 18-34) are fans of esports. In our Sports Study, we track motivations for being an esports fan, and the most common reasons directly mimic that of traditional sports. Top motivations for being a fan of esports include: love of the competition (23%), the escape from reality (20%), and the social connection with friends (15%).

In a time like this, every American (sports fan or not) is searching for the same thing: healthy means of distraction, engaging content, and ways to feel connected with others despite social distancing measures. Clearly, esports can supply on these three fronts. What was once characterized as an emerging trend in the worlds of sports, media, and entertainment may now represent a glimpse of hope for an industry in limbo and a much needed distraction for bored sports fans everywhere. On the other side of this crisis, we’d expect to see further acceleration in the growth of nationwide esports interest and fan-levels. The full impact of Covid-19 remains to be seen, but MRI-Simmons will be following this closely.

To learn more about sports fans, download our Insights into Sports Fans 2019 report today.

You can also gain deeper insights into esports fans by watching the presentation below:

Ben Paro
Ben Paro
Ben Paro is an Account Director on MRI-Simmons’ Brand Team and our resident specialist for all things Sports, Esports and Gaming. He is an evangelist for esports as central to the convergence of media, entertainment, sports and technology, and promotes gaming as a crucial ad channel to align with the next generation of consumers.
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