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With stadiums closed, TV networks turn to live esports broadcasts

The COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out the spring seasons for professional sports and associated revenue for TV networks, but esports is filling part of that void.

Gaming companies behind titles licensed by each major league are the winners in this unexpected shift. Electronic Arts (EA) is first among them with FIFA, Madden NFL, NBA Live and NHL in its EA Sports portfolio and more than 100 esports events planned for 2020. The way EA, networks and sports leagues are responding to production challenges in this crisis will reshape the esports market going forward.

Millions of people sheltering in place has created a breakout opportunity for esports broadcasting:

  1. A large portion of the internet-using population is at home 24/7, with screens as their main entertainment outlet.
  2. Sports fans have few competitive live events to watch.
  3. Broadcasters like ESPN, CBS, and Sky lost their most valuable content for attracting live viewers and need alternative content.
  4. Star athletes and non-sports celebrities are stuck at home with wide-open schedules.

In late March, 900,000 viewers tuned into Fox Sports for Nascar’s iRacing series, with 1.1 million watching in early April; the network has also broadcast Madden NFL tournaments with NFL commentators and athletes. ESPN is televising NBA players facing off against each other in NBA 2K (by Take-Two Interactive) and pro drivers (and other pro athletes like Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero) are racing each other in Codemasters’ F1 2019 game. ESPN has broadcast competitive play of non-sports games with League of Legends (by Riot Games) and Apex Legends (by EA) tournaments.

To be clear, ratings for these events have varied widely, but networks and game companies are rethinking how esports is broadcast, which will advance its pop culture appeal.

Games adapting pro sports are best bridge to non-gamers

Esports is a massively popular activity with its own large piece of turf in pop culture, but it hasn’t secured a central role. Research firm Newzoo pegs the global audience of “esports enthusiasts” at 223 million. But unlike soccer and basketball, esports is siloed because it caters to viewers who are generally avid gamers. The action is extremely fast, so commentary by a streamer rarely helps outsiders understand what is going on enough to become engaged.

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