Commentary

Traditional Sports Events And Fans Can Go Digital To Find Their Fix Via Esports

Most live sporting events are going on hiatus due to COVID-19. In light of this, I recently highlighted the necessity for brands and advertisers to pivot into existing online realms -- given that there are no physical alternatives at the moment -- and encouraged marketers to look into esports and gaming.

“There’s only one game in town, and it’s online,” said Jeff Eisenband, a sports and esports journalist who has hosted lots of content for both traditional sports teams such as the New Jersey Devils, and for esports leagues like the NBA 2K League. Over the past few weeks, Jeff has turned his girlfriend’s room at her parents’ house, where they’re staying, into a virtual studio for a variety of live-streamed content.

In light of recent events, I reached out to Jeff and asked him to highlight developments that have struck him in his work in the face of COVID-19, and provide some insights into what people might be missing, or forgetting, when thinking about the esports world. Here are the main takeaways.

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Traditional Sports Fans Follow The Sport, Regardless Of Where It Is

“When I was looking into esports, I mainly wanted to be involved in esports as an extension of my passion for traditional sports,” Jeff explained. “So, for instance, the gameplay in the real NBA and in NBA 2K are essentially the same. A basketball fan can watch NBA 2K for the first time and know what’s going on because the game is based on real traditional sports. There is a big difference between fans of traditional sports-based esports games and other games because those games are not based on anything with a likeness in the sports world.”

Although esports fans are much more akin to traditional sports fans than people think (for example, 82% of the 39 million US esports fans 18+ are also fans of the NFL, according to the latest esports study from MRI-Simmons), there are important nuances to remember.

Fans of games like "League of Legends" or "Overwatch," which are far and above among the most complicated games to watch and understand, attract a very different audience than traditional sports-based games such as NBA 2K.

“Right now, you see some traditional sports leagues jumping into their virtual, esports gameplay counterparts. More shouldn’t be afraid to do so, because the content isn’t hard to understand and gives fans a live sport to watch,” said Jeff, adding that “they will follow the sport, especially when this is the only way for them to get that content outside of past games.”

After our conversation, Jeff hosted an impromptu NBA 2K tournament run by the University of Kentucky, which invited future students, alumni, current students, and the rest of the “Big Blue Nation” of UK fans.

The “Hoops at Home” event was sponsored by Coca-Cola, and premiered on Twitch. He also hosted a Minecraft digital recreation of the Penn Relays, organized by Gen. G Esports, and sponsored by the U.S. Marine Corps and Toyota.

These are just two of many recent examples of taking the traditional sports audience into an esports setting.

“Why Would Anyone Watch People Play Video Games?”

“I think one of the biggest takeaways from this whole thing is that the ‘why would anyone watch people play video games’ argument that people give in response to the idea of things like esports and Twitch is just totally demolished,” Jeff emphasized.

Jeff is absolutely right. Twitch viewership in the month of March was up roughly 23% from 4Q19, from 100 million hours watched to 121.3 million hours watched.

On top of that, organizations like NASCAR are running virtualizations of racing through a game called iRacing, as a replacement for events like the Grand Prix.

In place of NBA games, the NBA and ESPN have begun to broadcast real players from teams that were supposed to play in person duking it out on NBA 2K when their matches would have normally aired.

“Jumping on Twitch and broadcasting a couple of your star players playing a round of NBA 2K or Madden or whatever traditional sports-based game only requires a little bit of organization, no rights, airtime, or anything like that. Throwing up your content on a place like Twitch is a simple and easy way to pump out content and engage fans who are otherwise unengaged right now,” said Jeff.

In fact, Jeff himself has begun broadcasting on Twitch and linking it to Twitter, and LinkedIn because that’s where his main audience lives. 

In closing, Jeff said, “right now, sports orgs and brands can pound out hours in gaming or impromptu esports tournaments and fill in content gaps. It’s really easy, and there’s very little risk in getting involved.”

And as he said, “there’s only one game in town, and it’s online.”

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