Covid-19: Could eSports come of age to fill the sporting void?
Lee Gibbons, MD of Sport Unlimited, recently wrote a great piece on how sports rights holders should pivot during COVID-19. One of the key threads in his post was the importance of engaging with fans during this period by utilising digital channels to stay connected and perhaps even expand the fanbase. One of the rapidly emerging trends for this was eSports.
So, at Walnut we decided to dip our toes in the water by asking one simple question to that very audience, the fans – what would you like to see you favourite sports right now, to see just how eSports fits in to the bigger picture. And this is what they had to say.
What sports fans want to see their favourite sports do during the Covid-19 restrictions.
*Survey of a national representative sample of 2,000 UK householders 27-28 March 2020 via the Walnut Unlimited bi-weekly online omnibus
On the face of it replaying older and classic events seems the popular choice. And this is reflected in the recent announcement from the BBC to reshow the London 2012 Olympics, Euro 96 and classic Premiership matches (amongst other) on their various channels in the coming weeks. As well as other sports like Formula One replaying classic races across their own digital channels.
So, at first glance you might think this isn’t such a positive result for eSports with only 1 in 10 sports fans saying they’d like to see their sports put on virtual events. But we need to recognise how young the eSports market is and how small it is in comparison. With awareness levels very low even only a few weeks ago, the fact that 11% of all sports fans want to see their stars compete online is in itself impressive. Monitoring how this could grow as our period of social restrictions continue will be fascinating.
There are already signs of this trajectory, suggesting that awareness and appeal could indeed grow massively through this period. The Spanish topflight football league (La Liga), for example, ran a weekend long online event using the Fifa20 game recently that drew 1 million online viewers.
An in the world of motorsports, an online event hosted by NASCAR the other weekend drew in 1.3 million viewers, breaking a TV viewership record they set themselves only a week earlier.
*Survey of a national representative sample of 2,000 UK householders 27-28 March 2020 via the Walnut Unlimited bi-weekly online omnibus (18-24 143, 25-34 172, 35-44 232, 45-54 237, 55-64 181, 65-74 154, 75+ 136)
And our research shows that the appeal of eSports is very heavily skewed to the highly valued and sought after ‘youth audience’ with 23% of 18-25 years old sports fans in favour of this approach. With many sports actively trying to attract new and younger audiences to ensure the long-term health of their business, eSports could be a powerful gateway to crossing over these audience between the real and virtual worlds.
Preference for eSports during blackout by sports followed regularly.
*Survey of a national representative sample of 2,000 UK householders 27-28 March 2020 via the Walnut Unlimited bi-weekly online omnibus (Cycling 166, America Sports 79, Motorsports 269, Football 766)
But it’s not just the petrol heads jumping online. In fact, our research tells us that cycling fans are those most positive about eSports, with 22% of cycling fans favouring virtual events. Perhaps because there was already an overlap, where brands such as Zwift allow amateur and pro cyclists alike to compete across virtual worlds using smart trainers in their homes.
In fact, this weekend saw the cancelled Tour of Flanders go virtual with 13 pro riders ‘getting together’ on the BKool online cycling platform to race across the final 30km of the route. The route may have been artificial, but the physical effort the riders put in was very real indeed!
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, so with no other options available to us right now, could this be the turning point for eSports that sees it come out of the shadows to take its place alongside the real-world events they look to emulate?