Esports in the Time of the Coronavirus

April 2, 2020
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Category: Esports  -  Media
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Last week 20 million people fought the coronavirus by staying indoors and logging onto Steam, a PC gaming platform – all at the same time, on the same day. That’s roughly the population of New York State or Florida, three million more viewers than the average of NFL game viewers, all turning their attention to the same place. It was the largest number of concurrent users in Steam’s history.

For those of you only discovering Esports for the first time: It is now officially a big deal. Just like computer games initially snuck up on the entertainment world, before surpassing movies as a source of revenue, the same appears to be the destiny of Esports.

The internet initially unleashed computer games for the console to be played by more than one player, but now games can have countless players at the same time, inhabiting the same game space and interacting with each other, sometimes as teammates, sometimes as competitors. The allure of gaming for the player is not surprising, but this new forum has given rise to a non-player capacity. Lots of people even log onto games just to watch others play – creating virtual stadium crowds. Then some people started recording their game experiences and posting them on YouTube, both as entertainment and as tutorials for those eager to up their own Esports skills.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to abandon or reschedule a great number of traditional sporting events, with the latest being the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan. But Esports are already bigger in terms of reach and activity and they are not just unaffected by quarantines and shelter in place programs, they are growing because of imposed isolation measures.

Esports have been growing for a decade, boasting half a billion players and viewers, and that growth has only intensified in recent weeks. Two Chinese gaming platforms, Douyu and Huya, have seen 18% growth in Chinese viewers since the coronavirus locked most of the Chinese population indoors. According to a March 17 Washington Post article, there were “sharp increases in first-time Twitch (the leading streaming platform) downloads in Europe over the past seven days.”

The increase went largely unnoticed at first, because several large Esports platforms canceled live arena events, making Esports look like every other business being rocked by social distancing. But players and spectators just went home and logged on, joined by newbies the world over. So many, in fact, that the NBA and the English Football Association are playing games online, with as many online viewers as normally show up at live games.

As Esports quickly evolve, many strive to incorporate them into mainstream life. Many colleges now recognize Esports as a legitimate athletic endeavor, offering letters and scholarships. High schools now offer Esports clubs, alongside chess and other indoor activities. Children are teaching their parents. And the number of games is growing both in number and in the range of activities offered. Although combat scenarios still dominate, E-Nascar offers racing, the NBA2K hosts virtual basketball games, and Pokemon, Tetris and FIFA Soccer are available to a wider range of ages and interests.

Psychologists and cultural anthropologists will be studying and debating the social impact of the coronavirus for decades to come. And one aspect they will certainly focus on will be adaptation strategies. Of all the ways that people are finding to stay connected and active in safe ways, it could be that Esports proves one of the most popular and most enduring – and most game-changing.

Fluent Research is tracking Esports. We’ll be writing more on the subject, reporting on our conversations with players, coaches, administrators, league officials, game developers and more. Being stuck inside, it’s easier to find the time. Of course, that’s assuming we can pull ourselves away from League of Legends…

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