Real sports benched, virtual platforms and telecommunications must seize opportunity
While the world was in lockdown, there were endless anecdotes and news reports about how communities sought to stay connected via video platforms, collaboration hubs, and online versions of activities they used to do in the real world ie. shopping. But, there is one important industry impacted by global stay-at-home measures, that this news channel has overlooked (or tends to overlook).
That is esports.
After the coronavirus was announced a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and populations all over the world were advised to practice social distancing, the sporting community more or less, halted. The Tokyo Olympics has been pushed back a year, while professional leagues everywhere have had to suspend activities to limit virus spread.
But, rather than halting sporting events completely, some sports associations have turned to virtual technology to keep the spirit of the game alive among their fans and the sports community.
Sporting organisations have opted to organise virtual versions of professional leagues. For example, UEFA, the Union of European Football Association, is the governing body of European football, and umbrella organisation for 55 national associations. It has just concluded the UEFA Euro 2020 e-tournament, on 24 May, 2020.
In case, you wonder how athletic footballers’ skills with their feet are translating to their virtual footwork on a virtual football field…, well, they do not.
Instead, online gamers have been called upon to represent countries. Not much more is known beyond that.
UEFA calls it the biggest ever national team electronic football tournament which featured all 55 members, followed the template of the tournament in the real world. The online tournament was played exclusively on Konami’s efootball PES 2020 on Playstation 4. Italy represented by a team of four gamers – AlonsoGrayfox, Naples17x, Nicaldan and Genoa_Npk02 – beat Serbia in the virtual final.
A sign of New Normal in sports?
Professional competition events like Formula One motorsports, are trying to figure out how to navigate COVID-19 while keeping the F1 motorsport community virus-free and still racing in years to come. They may be successful, because F1 racing is not a sport with physical human contact.
At the same time, Virtual Grand Prix events are being held, and instances have emerged where rookie Formula One drivers are besting more experienced ones, on the virtual platform.
For example, Williams driver, George Russell was reported by Formula1.com as having now taken two wins in succession in the Virtual Grand Prix series, having bested the likes of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, Red Bull’s Alex Albon and McLaren’s Lando Norris along the way. So, the sporting world is being upended and transforming as well.
Is it transforming for the better?
The World Economic Forum described the overall sporting world as having come to a standstill, but “…the virtual world is seizing the opportunity to fill the void, with athletes rushing to join online gamers as demand and viewing figures soar.”
It also said, “A 1 billion dollar industry, esports can command the sort of audiences and interaction that many real sports can only dream of.”
Before the pandemic and social distancing mandates, the global value of (real) sports was estimated to be USD471 billion in 2018. Then the coronavirus stopped everything, and every part of the sporting value chain is impacted – from athletes and club teams, to the media that broadcast their sport.
Weforum.org also cautioned that anything longer than a temporary shutdown would see leagues unable to meet commitments to broadcasters or distribute income back to the sporting clubs. The impact would be dramatic and far-reaching, and sports bodies and TV network partners are currently working to find mutual solutions.
Weforum.org also predicts transformational trends that will move media consumption away from traditional broadcast television to direct-to-consumer ( D2C) content services, and even more sports industry deals with smaller digital players like Amazon Prime.
This presents opportunities for these digital players (and telcos) to explore diverse income streams like live payments for digital items, new camera angles, fan commentary and statistical analysis. Immersive technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality, have an opportunity to shine.
So, the thing to note now is the two-fold opportunity presenting itself here – One, is real sports being played without live audiences, but captured and streamed directly to consumers via online platforms. The second is virtual versions of sports tournaments and competitions, like Virtual Grand Prix and the electronic UEFA played on Sony Playstations.
The telco play
ONE Esports CEO, Carlos Alimurung told TelecomsWorld Asia, that esports is still in its early phase of growth, But it is fast-growing and there are many opportunities to engage it. He also observed that the telecom industry is one of the best positioned sectors to benefit from the esports movement, and that mobile esports will expand because of the wide accessibility to smartphones compared to PCs and gaming rigs.
Esports was estimated to be worth USD694 million in 2017 and was anticipated to be worth USD2 billion in 2023. These are figures that came about in 2018.
With real sports being benched at the moment, esports being played on virtual platforms and telco infrastructure have real opportunities to grab. Like WEF had pointed out, sports being played in virtual online arenas, command the sort of audiences and interaction that many real sports can only dream of.