COVID-19 and esports

COVID-19 impact: The growth of esports

Sport management professor discusses how the coronavirus fuels interest in competitive video games

As the coronavirus threatens health and upends daily life throughout the world, UofSC Today is turning to our faculty to help us make sense of it all. While no one can predict exactly what will happen in the coming weeks and months, our faculty can help us ask the right questions and put important context around emerging events.

Mark Nagel is a professor of sport and entertainment management in the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management. We asked him to discuss the popularity of competitive video games and how esports is helping fill the void left by the absence of mainstream sporting events.

How would you describe esports to someone who knows nothing about the topic?

Esports are competitive video games that have elements of high-level traditional sports including organized tournaments, media coverage, licensed merchandise sales, etc.

When many think of video games, they may visualize the 1980s/1990s with arcade games like Space Invaders, Pac Man, etc., and home consoles like Nintendo and Sega where games are usually played individually. There are certainly some highly popular esports that are played by one person against another, but the majority of esports competitions involve a team of players working together to beat an opposing team of players. A number of video games are played at the highest levels by teams that have full-time coaches, nutritionists and publicists working with players on a specific training schedule where group strategies are created, individual skills are developed and marketing activities are implemented.

Many of the most popular esports titles involve individual players on a team needing to choose specific in-game roles and then performing particular actions for the team to be successful. Much like a basketball team has five players who each have different responsibility — point guard, shooting guard, etc. —and who work collectively to implement a specific strategy, many esports games offer a number of individual and team-focused strategies and performances which leads to fans having many things to observe and potentially debate.   

We’ve seen sales of gaming equipment spike and streaming platforms such as Twitch report record use since March. Can you explain why that is happening?

Part of it is a continuation of what has been happening the last 12-24 months as more and more people are participating in esports activities and consuming esports-related content. The recent “stay-at-home” concerns for the virus have certainly accelerated many people’s exposure to and consumption of esports, as it is an activity that is conducive to social distancing. Many people, particularly those under the age of 25, were already beginning to utilize Twitch as a meeting place, much like a stop at a bar or restaurant to meet friends might have been common after school or work 20 years ago. That has increased in the last month. 

As someone who teaches a course about the business of esports, is this something you would have predicted? What about it has surprised you?

A number of people anticipated that the esports industry would be impacted in both a positive and negative manner once regular activities were curtailed. Certainly, people at home need things to do, so the increase in participation in online activities was anticipated. At the same time, most in-person activities — tournaments, appearances, autograph signings, etc. — have been curtailed. Nearly every top player and esports industry personality has increased their streaming time to stay active and connected with their fans. The big remaining questions involve how fast will those in-person activities resume and then how much of the increased web activity will be retained once many people can return to their normal lives where they are not trapped at home most of the day. 

The recent 'stay-at-home' concerns for the virus have certainly accelerated many people’s exposure to and consumption of esports, as it is an activity that is conducive to social distancing.

Mark Nagel, sport and entertainment management professor

How do you think the COVID-19 crisis will affect the long-term future and growth of esports?

It will likely be a spike in an overall upward trend for online activities. No one knows for sure where the esports saturation point will be for participation, online consumption, in-person activities, etc., but while the virus has devastated many other industries, some elements of the esports industry have not been harmed. However, there are a number of upcoming tournaments and esports-related events that may not be staged. Some of these events provide significant amounts of revenues for game publishers and event organizers. While the esports industry has not experienced the same level of financial harm as many traditional sports and the overall esports industry is certainly growing, there are some concerns about fan behavior if some elements of the industry cannot be accessed.   


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