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An Unexpected Catalyst: The Coronavirus and Virtual Sporting Events

dude wearing VR goggles pretending to be at a sporting event

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic is widespread and far-reaching. Nearly every facet of life and every country has been affected. Notably, COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on the sporting and entertainment sectors, with nearly all major events cancelled or postponed. As those around the world are “sheltering in place,” alternative forms of entertainment are being pursued. And virtual sports and events appear to be the latest craze in this regard.

Less than a year ago, Bold Business highlighted the rapid emergence of esports. Projections at that time suggested the virtual sports industry would surpass $3 billion by 2022. However, in light of current events, these predictions may dramatically underestimate its growth. In fact, major sporting events are already being held online with incredible participation and viewership. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic is tangible. And its broad effects are likely to leave a lasting impression on all sporting events to come.

“People that I’ve spoken to over years that have had no interest at all in gaming suddenly want to be involved. It’s insane. I’ve never seen anything like it. When you’ve got people who never showed any interest in [simulated] racing suddenly trying to buy rigs and practice, then you know that something’s changed.” – Darren Cox, President and CEO of Torque Esports

Virtual Sports Filling the Gap

In recent weeks, several sporting events and even seasons have been completely cancelled. The NBA stopped with 2019-2020 season after members of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus. Likewise, the NHL, MLB, and MLS followed suit with all matches being cancelled. Similarly, other major sporting events, like the Grand Prix series, also found it prudent to halt the races already on the schedule. Without question, these stoppages will cost millions if not billions of dollars. But at the same time, it leaves a major void for both athletes and spectators alike. Fortunately, that’s where virtual sports can help.

someone with VR goggles playing amidst virus molecules
Thanks to the coronavirus, it may be time for virtual sporting events to take over.

When Australia’s Grand prix was cancelled, both Torque Esports and Veloce Esports jumped into action. Torque Esports created “The Race” as a replacement virtual sports context among e-drivers using simulators. Veloce Esports launched “Not the Aus GP” virtual sports race, which was similar in nature. For Torque Esports, over half a million viewers streamed the race live with over a million total views. And over 70,000 watched Veloce’s race live on Twitch.TV. The increase in viewership was incredible. But what was even more impressive was the increased interest in participation.

“In times like this I think there is a huge potential for us to be able to leverage our newly-developed product around esports to see how we can plug the gap we now have in the F1 calendar.” – Julian Tan, Head of Digital Business Initiatives & Esports at Formula 1

From Field to Screen – Transferring to Virtual Sports in Record Time

While millions tuned into sporting events being streamed in the virtual space, others wanted in on the action. In “The Race,” Red Bull F1 driver, Max Verstappen, was among the participants. Likewise, Indy 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud also competed in the virtual sports event. Torque Esports reported that 30 real-world drivers actually competed in the event. For Veloce, the level of interest among real athletes was the same. Their competition showcased the e-driving skills not only of McLaren’s Lando Norris but also Real Madrid’s goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois. Apparently, virtual sports are a great alternative when real professional sporting events are absent.

Of course, virtual sporting events have offered much more than Grand Prix racing venues. NASCAR has gotten in on the action as well. Partnering with iRacing, NASCAR held an eNASCAR exhibition race that included celebrities like dale Earnhardt Jr. Viewership was so large that NASCAR has since decided to hold a Pro Invitational Series in the same format. Also, once the NBA season was cancelled, the Phoenix Sun announced they would continue their games on NBA 2K. This is not surprising since many professional teams have already been developing their own e-sports versions. But these decisions to move ahead quickly is noteworthy in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Until we have cars back on track, the entire NASCAR community has aligned to provide our passionate fans with a unique, fun and competitive experience on race day.” – Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s Vice President of Racing Development

No Shortage of Money for Virtual Sporting Events

One of the early concerns regarding virtual sporting events involved revenues. Without traditional on-field attendance, ticket sales would be less. Likewise, without big TV contracts, like those with ESPN, television revenues would be lacking also. But virtual sports have already proven that it is doing just fine when it comes to revenues. The booming esports industry has already exceeding $1 billion in annual earnings. And spectators will happily pay for streaming costs and virtual entry into sporting events as recent history has shown. This is even more likely the case given that virtual sports have a more captive audience sitting at home.

In addition to these revenues, advertising dollars are also huge. For example, Intel pays over $10 million a year to sponsor the Overwatch League. Likewise, Nike pays $8 million as a sponsor for League of Legends. And this was before the coronavirus pandemic ever began. As spectators, participation, and higher-level competition evolves, virtual sports will attract more and more advertisers. And given that these sponsors no longer had traditional sporting events to support, virtual sports offer a great alternative.

“We always said we were blurring the boundaries between virtual and real. They’re blurred, they’re gone, they’re done. Forever.” – Darren Cox

An Evolving Paradigm Shift

Understandably, the sports that have migrated the fastest to virtual sports are those like racecar driving and gaming. But it is notable that leagues like the NBA and NFL have shown interest in creating their own e-sports leagues. By all accounts, this evolution was expected to take several years. This had less to do with development and more to do with social trends and acceptance. But coronavirus may have changed all of that by serving as an unexpected catalyst to the process. If the pandemic lasts several months, those who normally attend sporting events will be increasingly attracted to virtual sports. And once the jump is made, there is likely no turning back.

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