Esports Leagues Are Only Game in Town After NBA and NHL Go Dark

American sports have ground to a halt. For at least the next few weeks there will be no NBA or NHL, no MLB, no pro lacrosse and no soccer.

But one form of competition is still going strong despite the coronavirus pandemic — esports.

Unlike basketball or hockey, the billion-dollar world of competitive video games doesn’t require much, if any, social gathering. And as sports fans, betting houses and TV networks stare at a calendar devoid of traditional sports, there may be an opportunity for esports to attract a new audience.

“It’s an easy move for our industry from a hybrid of online and live events to all online,” said Andy Miller, co-owner of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings and founder of NRG Esports. “Expanding and getting new tournaments and game-play content up is not a costly endeavor.”

The esports industry has ballooned in the past few years, buoyed by game publishers, investments by traditional sports-team owners and the backing of corporate sponsors. Video games have global appeal and offer a huge variety — from sports titles, such as the Madden franchise, to shooter titles and cartoonish battles with guns, including Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Fortnite.

It’s also live at all hours of the day because of its global footprint. Moritz Maurer, chief executive officer of the esports data platform GRID, said there will be roughly 55,000 professional esports competitions this year in the major titles, an average of more than 1,000 a week.

“As everyone cocoons in front of their screens, anything that combines action, competition and social distancing will get a second look,” said Lee Berke, a media consultant.

Even the NBA’s Phoenix Suns are embracing esports. The team said on Thursday that they would be playing the remainder of their games — not on a court, but in the NBA 2K virtual league. The matches will be aired on the streaming service Twitch.

After weeks of trying to conduct business as usual, the U.S. sports world finally conceded this week that play couldn’t continue in the face of the spreading coronavirus. While it looked like the major leagues might try to hold games without fans, an NBA player tested positive for the disease on Wednesday and the league immediately suspended the rest of its season, launching a cascade of cancellations across sports.

Major League Baseball, the NCAA, the NHL and MLS all suspended their operations. In other parts of the sports world, lacrosse, tennis and minor league hockey and basketball have also shut down.

One major challenge for esports organizations — getting the attention of new fans amid the always-cluttered sports calendar — might be easier over the next few weeks.

“The reality for esports organizations is that they have to expand their audience beyond just active gamers,” Maurer said. “There is a clear trend of growth in viewership that is driven by a demographic that likes to watch but does not necessarily play the games.”

Not Immune

Esports hasn’t been entirely unaffected by the virus. Riot Games Inc.’s main League of Legends circuit, for example, announced it would cancel all live audiences, tailgates and press availability at its studios until further notice. Activision Blizzard Inc. made a similar announcement for its Overwatch League, and its tour-based Call of Duty League will stop traveling. In all three leagues, the matches will continue online.

That might be valuable content for betting houses and media networks. Broadcasters like ESPN and Fox Sports will lose plenty of live sports in the next few weeks, if not longer. Miller, whose NRG Esports organization operates teams in six different titles, said those networks might look to acquire esports rights as a way to continue showing live competitions.

A few leagues already have media partners. Earlier this year, YouTube scored exclusive rights to broadcast both major Activision Blizzard franchised leagues. ESPN has nonexclusive rights to Riot’s League Championship Series, which airs on ESPN+ as well as YouTube, Twitch and Riot’s website.

That said, there are dozens of other leagues whose matches might be available for broadcast to satisfy hungry sports fans. Two hours after the NBA suspended its season, former NFL player Chris Long was already thinking about how to entertain himself moving forward.

“In a month I’ll be glued to a livestream of a dude in a Cedar Rapids basement playing ‘Zelda,’” Long said on Twitter. “Might as well be the Super Bowl at that point.”

— With assistance by Olga Kharif

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