Sport goes virtual during coronavirus pandemic

David Smith

Sports, clubs and athletes are turning to the world of Esports during the coronavirus crisis.

With the exception of the Belarusian Premier League, sports around the world have ground to a halt during the ongoing worldwide pandemic.

As a result, players, teams and organisations suddenly find themselves idle, mid-season in a lot of cases.

The absence of physical sports has led to a boom in the world of virtual sports; a rapidly-growing multi-million euro online industry.
Football clubs the world over have created online games, whether it be on FIFA 20 or Connect Four, against other teams on social media in recent weeks.

Formula One has cleverly decided to complete a virtual season following the suspension of the real-life 2020 season.

The last-minute cancellation of the Melbourne Grand Prix was followed by the eventual postponement of the next six races on the F1 circuit, throwing the entire 2020 season into doubt.

Last week, the F1 Esports Virtual Bahrain Grand Prix was aired live on Sky Sports, with drivers including Max Verstappen, Nico Hulkenberg, Lando Norris and Nicholas Latifi, Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and golfer Ian Poulter competing against one another through the F1 2019 PC video game.

Other sports have followed suit.

Every Supercars driver on the roster has signed up for the All Stars Eseries in April, while NASCAR are also broadcasting an online series of Esports races.

The NRL – Australia’s national rugby league competition – is also getting involved, with Wests Tigers and Canterbury streaming their scheduled Round 3 NRL clash, contested on Fortnite, live on Facebook last weekend.

Football clubs are also seeing the benefit of foraying further into the gaming market.

Leyton Orient organised a 128-team FIFA 20 tournament involving other professional clubs around the world in the ‘#UltimateQuaranTeam Cup’.

League of Ireland clubs Derry City, Dundalk, Finn Harps, Shamrock Rovers and Waterford United will join the likes of Manchester City, Roma, PSV and Benfica in the online competition.

Crystal Palace winger Andros Townsend has confirmed that he will represent the Eagles in the tournament.

While online events such as these during the coronavirus crisis will attract fresh eyes to the world of Esports, the ePremier League is already in its second season.

The FIFA 20 competition – which is contested by professional video gamers representing each Premier League club – is now in its second season, and has a £40,000 prize pool on offer.

Former Everton and Manchester City centre back Joleon Lescott has signed up for the competition, while Real Madrid winger Gareth Bale, Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil and AC Milan captain Alessio Romagnoli all own their own Esports teams.

The benefits for clubs and leagues are clear, from sponsorship opportunities (see the tweet below) to building relationships with supporters, and allowing players and athletes to bond through a virtual forum.

Lockdowns and other precautionary measures around the world will lead to a spike in gaming numbers over the coming months. For example, participation in amateur Esports in Australia has tripled since the outbreak of COVID-19.

Athletes and professional sports stars often game in their spare time anyway, and the absence of busy sporting schedules and training will only increase their presence in the virtual gaming world.

Earlier this month, Steam – the world’s largest and most popular PC gaming marketplace – recorded a staggering 20 million concurrent online users. Streaming service Twitch has reportedly also enjoyed a 15% growth.

However, it is worth noting that even the world of Esports is suffering financially from the absence of live crowds, with several major stadium events being cancelled in recent weeks and months.