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E-sports: The only game in town

Despite postponements and format changes, it’s still game on.

The 2019 League of Legends World Championship Finals at AccorHotels Arena on November 10, 2019 in Paris, France. Photo by Colin Young-Wolff. Courtesy of Riot Games. The 2019 League of Legends World Championship Finals at AccorHotels Arena on November 10, 2019 in Paris, France. Photo by Colin Young-Wolff. Courtesy of Riot Games.

With cancelled live events, shuttered stadiums, and Japan’s decision to postpone the Olympics, leagues and fans across the globe are reeling from the coronavirus’ impact. These shutdowns come as many viewers find themselves trapped at home, in need of entertainment and distraction more than ever. In the midst of its meteoric rise in popularity, e-sports has not been spared. The League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational has been postponed until July, and events such as League of Legends Championship Series and ESL’s DOTA 2 tournaments have moved to online formats. For years, e-sports has relied on emulating traditional sport competitions, with massive events and live audiences. However, these shutdowns have forced organizers and game companies to change their tactics in order to keep fans and players interested.

Challenges never faced 

Chris Tran, head of e-sports, Southeast Asia, for Riot Games, admits that while the shutdowns have opened new channels for distribution, especially with TV, the assumption that these shutdowns will create a new and wider audience beyond core e-sports fans has yet to be proven. “While we regard e-sports as a way for players to remain connected with each other and to be part of a wider community during these unprecedented times, we’re aware that some fans still have some ways to go before truly embracing and understanding e-sports. We are seeing increased engagement from fans, but are conscious that not all gamers who enjoy playing video games will naturally enjoy watching e-sports. This has pushed us to create more compelling fringe content, particularly on social media, to slowly draw more players into the world of e-sports.”

The 2019 League of Legends World Championship Finals at AccorHotels Arena on November 10, 2019 in Paris, France. Photo by Colin Young-Wolff. Courtesy of Riot Games.

In addition to shutting down stadiums and forcing competitions online, the virus outbreak has spurred leagues and gaming companies to re-engineer solutions to challenges they’ve never faced before, such as maintaining servers and broadcast centers remotely, as well as putting in place new measures to ensure match integrity when teams aren’t all in the same room.

The closure of live events and tournaments doesn’t bode well for players and fans’ experience in the long term. “When you do things in-person, it deepens the quality of interaction,” Tran said. “Having a live audience also increases the quality of the broadcast, which is important because if everything is online, you lose a certain kind of electricity. To hear the cheering crowds, to watch the players high-fiving fans: all these things make the experience more human, even if you’re not there.”

Read this: In Vietnam, e-sports turns passion into careers

A matter of timing

In response to the evolving conditions as the virus spreads across different regions, forcing some countries into lockdown while others attempt to stage a recovery, e-sports leagues must perform a number of contortions to keep players and fans safe, respect continuously changing laws aimed at promoting public health, and, as Tran says, battle “to keep the lights on: to continue to excite and delight our fans.” He believes it’s too soon to say what factors will emerge to shape the industry, going forward.

Accelerating existing, dominant trends

Despite these headwinds, video game companies are optimistic the virus won’t derail the general trends of development that were in place before COVID-19 brought some facets of life to a halt. With the virus pushing movies online faster than ever before and prompting theaters to put their performances online, industries already feeling the effects of technological disruption may be the ones most impacted by the virus.

In terms of e-sports, Tran believes the recovery period will solidify games and emergent benefits for the ecosystem. “I think e-sports is inevitable. The world is going from analog to digital, and as we see the trend of gaming versus athletic pastimes winning out, e-sports will continue to grow as one of the main entertainment forms of the future.”

As viewers turn to video game streams to fight loneliness and isolation, Tran feels this historical moment is only the next step in the narrative that “nerds are the new cool.”

The rise in gaming’s popularity may also be a matter of economics: “‘Gaming per hour’ is one of the cheapest forms of entertainment out there, compared to movies and concerts,” Tran said.

In contrast to other entertainment platforms, gaming may already have a leg up on the competition. “As people are forced to be physically distant, they are looking for ways to be socially connected. Games are built for that.”