Watching Bradley Beal cruise down the court for a flush is nothing really new for basketball fans. It’s not uncommon to witness the Washington Wizards’ guard make plays on hardwoods across the country. But with NBA arenas and facilities closed to basketball and just about any other event due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s now a sight unseen. Or it would be, if you didn’t have a controller and the NBA 2K video game. Even Beal has joined the millions of virtual ballers shooting hoops from the comfort of their own homes. This on-court experience coming soon to a couch or gaming chair near you. 

The business of video games is no longer a juvenile pipe dream, especially given the surging popularity of streaming. All those hours spent playing Super Mario Bros. and Zelda can now lead to a lucrative career that doesn’t involve game design. Under the umbrella of electronic sports — otherwise known as eSports — the world of video gaming has exploded from a simple pastime to a very profitable industry. According to Business Insider, eSports captured an audience of 335 million people in a 2017 study. That demand continues to grow annually as tournaments, pro leagues and gamers gain traction with consumers. 

Electronic sports is one of the fastest-growing industries. Can eSports fill the void left by live sports during the COVID-19 pandemic?

It’s a question that many would scoff at if it were asked on January 1st, 2020. Today, with most of the world quarinted, gaming is one of the few viable outlets for social activity permitted. 

Despite the name, eSports doesn’t just include sports. It refers to the video game industry as a whole, as long as there is a team element. In a social-distanced world, online gaming provides plenty of competition. Tournaments cater to just about any multiplayer video game on the market. The most popular among them being Call of Duty, Fortnite and League of Legends. 

Each title brings in millions of followers looking to find an edge, often following the lead of eSports stars who stream on a regular basis — some of whom are professional gamers. Everyone wants to be the next gaming darling like Ninja, but it takes plenty of work, including branding and countless hours in front of a screen, to get to that level of stardom. Before all of that, drumming up a loyal following is important. While fans of actual sports teams can profess their love and adoration to a local franchise, the same can’t be said for a generation of fans who cheer for their favourite eSports team or streamer. 

From online tournaments to streaming events to casual one-vs-one play, there is plenty of opportunity to distinguish the pros from the couch potatoes. With prizes that begin at six figures and go all the way up to $15 million (for the Fortnite World Cup match), there’s a lot at stake for these masters of the small screen. Especially when you consider that the average eSports player makes $1,000 to $1,500 a month for their mastery. That’s a tiny sum in comparison to the $585,000 veteran minimum in the NBA. No one would go as far to say that gaming is an essential service, but it might be essential for filling our need for team spirit.

2K Studios, the popular developer of the NBA 2K franchise, has cultivated a loyal following. Their league pool has a cool $1.4 million purse for the winners, drawing 15,000+ views to what would be the equivalent of the Super Bowl for the gaming studio. Esports leagues are trying to seize the opportunity to capture the attention of the bored masses. 2K even created some buzz behind their NBA 2k Players Only 2K Tournament, with NBA stars picking up the controls for charity. The league drummed up so much buzz that Major League Baseball created its own players league and tournament for fans to watch. NASCAR has officially gone virtual with their iRacing series as well, with many of the sport’s most prominent names sitting behind the wheel. 

The appetite to see live gaming exists and is trending upward. The industry is seeing more advertisements, support from stars from all walks of life, and a loyal fanbase tune in to see the action. With each event, the industry gains more viewers and organic fan engagement. Will there be nightly recaps of the Call of Duty top 10 kills on SportsCenter anytime soon? Who knows. In times like these, you could earn more coin from selling toilet paper and sanitizer than a Derek Jeter rookie card. Seizing on this golden opportunity, Esport leagues are mobilizing tournaments and events online to capture the waning attention of a restless market. After all, if there is one common thread among any game, it’s the fans. Especially with major sports knocked out of commission indefinitely. 

Call of Duty Modern Warfare

The ability for our favorite real-world sports to rally a large segment of society together is a part of the reason why we’re left looking for alternatives at the moment. With many areas in North America and abroad limiting the number of people gathering to less than what it takes to make a starting line, it’s next to impossible to play any match at this moment. Even the sports entertainment business WWE is having a difficult time producing live content as it prepares for what should be its biggest show of the year, Wrestlemania 36. 

It’s hard to replace the atmosphere of game day. The smell, sights and rocking sounds — save for golf — serve to get the blood flowing and the mind anticipating the wonder that is about to take place. Sports’ ability to bring so many people together, whether to root for or against you, is only comparable to politics in that nature. And often is as divisive — go Hurricanes!

These days we have plenty of time — maybe too much — to watch, observe and wonder about how the world is changing around us. Esports serves as a convenient distraction from those worries. But even this industry is not pandemic proof. Live tourneys, conferences and product launches have been cancelled or postponed. Despite this, streamers continue to provide content across the globe as they play in charity matches to help those who are most impacted by SARS-CoV-2. Pro athletes have even picked up a controller to join the cause. 

Sports possesses the unique quality to allow anyone to feel like a part of the team. Cheering for ‘your’ team, following every high and low… you were a part of each game match. Those iconic moments such as Sidney Crosby’s Golden Goal are often replicated on driveways, backyards and parks the world over. On a different scale, you can live and die with every kill or goal scored in a virtual match. You can even try to replicate gaming feats at home on your own system of choice. Perhaps that is why there is so much interest in the gaming community? What makes one player great from another doesn’t seem that wide of a spectrum until you take them on. Just like in basketball, you can’t judge the competition purely on hand size. 

The gaming industry is reigning supreme in more households than any single time in history. How else could you explain customers lining up for products in the midst of a pandemic? Esports can’t replace live sports, nor does it really need to. Not because it doesn’t have the following or backing. It’s because, as divisive as sports can be, they unite us like no other industry. We’ve already witnessed that following the passing of NBA star Kobe Bryant. Major League Baseball led the charge in the return to normalcy after the events of 9/11 to lift spirits in time of despair. We’ll just have to wait and watch to see if gaming can bring people together after this desocialization period concludes. In a time where the rest of the world is on pause, eSports plays on. 

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