Opinion

eSports to play a more prominent role now and in future of MICE?

Covid19 will reignite the many questions around the ‘risk vs return-on-investment’ when hosting major sporting events and whether destinations will be reticent to bid in the future.

The summer Olympics in Tokyo announced a postponement until July 2021; the economic implications of which will be far reaching.

Also with so many conventional sports using eSports as a platform to help raise funds to tackle Covid-19, may well act as a catalyst to further blur the lines between traditional and online or virtual sport – is it too far-fetched to imagine competing against your sporting idol using the power of eSports in the future?

Undoubtedly, the profile of eSports was already on an upward trajectory but the pandemic may will be a turning point in the eSports revolution. This industry provide some form of safety net, and a major new opportunity to help balance the books of major sporting festivals of the future; for the latter, the discussion has been on the table for a few years now. So much so, that eSports may well be on track to be included as a demonstration event, to run prior to and in conjunction with the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The eSports industry has seen stratospheric growth for more than a decade; moving from a peripheral niche player into the mainstream both as a sport broadcast on some sports channels to revenue forecasts expected to grow to $1.1bn this year. More and more destinations are looking to attract eSports/ gaming festivals and expos.

If we take Canada as a case-in-point, having lagged behind Europe and Asia in their eSports development, they have made serious inroads to catch-up. In August 2018, for the first time ever, the battle for the Aegis of Champions was waged on Canadian soil, as ‘The International Dota 2 Championships’ invited the world's top Dota teams to face off at ‘Rogers Arena’ in Vancouver. A digital tech powerhouse and home to Canada’s digital technologies Supercluster, Vancouver is home to well-known companies Electronic Arts (EA), Microsoft, Capcom, Nintendo, and Sony Pictures Imageworks.

DreamHack, the world's largest digital festival, which features both professional competitions and interactive activities was held for the first time at the Vancouver Convention Centre (July 2019) and is scheduled to return for the second time in September 2020 within Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.

Without doubt, amid the chaos created by the current pandemic, the eSports industry will suffer like every other sector, however, by the very nature of their huge online communities, some aspects will remain unaffected. Indeed Covid19 could be seen as a vehicle to get more entrants into the online sports sphere, with so many people isolated or quarantined at home. And therein lies the power of the eSports industry, the ability to reach outwards, engage with huge audiences at an accelerating rate whilst growing into new territories and all predominantly in cyberspace.

So, if we really think ‘out-of-the-box’, could eSports be the new ‘kid-on-the-block’ to justify destination bids to host major events of the future? And could the impact of Covid19 enhance the relationship between traditional and online sport? My thoughts are yes absolutely, based on the sectors innovative technology and truly global outreach to a young tech-savvy audience able to engage from any location. So, in the rare circumstance a sporting event of the future has to be postponed or cancelled, there just might be a virtual interim solution.

Attracting eSports events brings with it a very valuable ecosystem; many major sports teams and brands already have e-gaming teams/ leagues or interact through sponsorship. In 2020, $822.4 million in revenues, or three quarters of the total (eSports global market) will come from media rights and sponsorship, according to a Newzoo market report. Also, the total eSports audience will see a year-on-year growth of +11.7%. Brands that have investment into eSports sponsorship include Pepsico, Anheuser Busch, Mastercard, and Louis Vuitton.

The world of football seems to be ahead of the eSports curve, largely related to EA’s FIFA franchise managing the flagship ‘eFIFA World Cup’ and associated tournaments, an investment into the sector stretching back to 2004. Nowadays, the likes of Manchester City, West Ham, FC Schalke, FC Copenhagen and FC Eindhoven are amongst many clubs with their own e-teams competing in leagues and competitions.

Destinations, global federations, clubs and brands are all identifying the potential of eSports to communicate with generation Y and Z. The average age of an eSports fan is 26 with the youngest proportion (85%) of fans under the age of 35.

How might Covid19 initiate new conversations within the sports tourism world? Whilst nothing can replace the ‘live’ spectacle of a major sporting festival like an Olympic Games, the eSports sector may hold several key advantages for all the many stakeholders. Firstly, this style of competition can be managed remotely, whilst still attracting huge online audiences worldwide. Secondly, if the event is postponed, it provides the host nation and federation a new interactive online platform to provide fans with a continuing narrative and engagement with the event; such as watching virtual competitions, exactly as Formula 1 is doing right now. Thirdly, and of critical importance, it can provide an outlet for sponsors and stakeholders to maintain awareness and engagement through the online channels and virtual competitions.

The potential for events to add a specific eSport dimension, could become a requirement for major sports festival bids, especially if the legacy can continue to bring eSports fans to their region. What may sound far-fetched, may already exist in some form and provide a blueprint for other destinations - it was reported by siliconcanals.com, that the city of Eindhoven is the world’s first city to get an ‘Active eSports Arena’ for real virtual experiences with participants using their body as a controller – the clearest example of the crossover between eSports and traditional sports.

Destinations are waking up to the eSports/ Gaming revolution and all the opportunities it holds. The unprecedented upheaval caused by Covid19, is already questioning how we will work in the future, how we will engage with each other and how to cope if we experience something similar. Tokyo 2020 highlights the fragility and risk as host destination, but eSports/ Gaming may well provide an interim solution, it is at least food for thought. Watch this virtual space!

Star-gazing into the future of eSport?

Imagine having the chance to compete against a true sporting great; unthinkable in the real world for the vast majority, but based on the current eSports revolution this may well be a plausible concept in the cyber world of the future.

Andy Murray - a self-confessed gaming aficionado, alongside Lucas Pouille, Rafa Nadal and many other top tennis stars will compete in ‘Mutua Madrid Open Virtual Pro’ today. In addition and running in parallel with the tournament, there will be a series of benefit matches bringing together the biggest content creators in the gaming world taking on professional tennis players.

The European football family, courtesy of EA sports the makers of the popular FIFA series, are organising the ‘FIFA Stay and Play Cup’ which took place between 15-19 April, an online competition bringing together 20 of Europe’s leading clubs and 20 leading players to battle it out online. The likes of Liverpool, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Ajax have selected high profile club players to represent them in the cup tournament.

F1 was one of the earliest sports to get on track with their ‘F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix’ series. Have you ever heard of Dani Bereznay? Most probably not, yet the BBC reported that this 19-year old Hungarian has claimed the scalp of a number of high profile F1 drivers such as Nico Hulkenberg, however, this did happen on a virtual track. Bereznay is an official eSports Formula 1 driver for Alfa Romeo, which he described as the realization of a dream, especially since real racing can be prohibitively expensive; “eSports was the best route for me because its equal opportunities” he stated.

Covid-19 has therefore created new platforms, encouraged new competition formats and attracted new elite athletes to bring their real world sporting knowledge online, thus opening up a whole new e-world of possibilities.

As the Bereznay example showcases, there is the potential for amateur enthusiasts to be on an equal footing through eSports with the elite competitors. Bereznay is of course a professional eSports player, but his example does lay the basis for amateurs to compete with the elite on an equal footing.

Maybe the ‘Pro vs Amateur’ concept could take the form of federations setting up consumer/ fan competitions which result in winners having the chance to play their idols online, all the way through to a very futuristic vision incorporating AI, where amateur sports people are able to pit their physical wits against an AI sporting idol.

I am certain that the discussions around the model of AI training programmes for professional athletes is already underway, so bridging the gap to incorporate amateur audiences is closer than we think. Having witnessed the speed and indeed the popularity of creating an online replica of well-known sporting events, the eSports revolution is here and ready to further blur the lines between the physical and online/ virtual worlds sooner rather than later.

This could be a much needed tonic offering a new world of opportunities for the MICE sector post Covid-19.

 

By Ramy Salameh

 

Tags: Esports, Events, Destinations, MICE

29-04-2020