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While mainstream sports face a hiatus of unknown length, esports competition has been able to move online and is seeing an uptake in viewership as a result, a burden for networks but a potential boon for advertising.

Esports tournaments move online, or onto TV

Both sports and esports have seen their live events shuttered in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. For sport, this has effectively meant the cessation of all activity. For esports, however, the possibility exists for solely online play, and that option is increasingly being taken up by tournaments that would otherwise have been postponed or scrapped. The Overwatch League decided mid-March to run scheduled matches purely online. The League of Legends European Championship has followed suit.

Moving online comes with a host of issues to negotiate such as potentially compromised connectivity and the greater risk of cheating. As Avi Bhuian of esports services company Popdog commented, “… if these were ideal measures, we’d already be playing tournaments online.” But as millions of compulsorily isolated people resorting to Google Hangouts or Zoom to see their friends have discovered, “not ideal” is still many times better than “not at all.” Indeed, the ESL Pro League, the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive competition, another to have moved online, has reported record viewership during the widespread global lockdown.

Which brings us to esports based on sports themselves, which have found the greatest opportunity amid adversity. In its Digital Consumer 2030: Services and Content report, Omdia enthused about the crossover between esports and motorsport particularly, foreseeing a future in which professionals in both disciplines would be able to square off against each other: 20 competitors on the track against 20 avatars of players in hi-tech racing simulators. A huge step toward that goal took place on March 22, when the cancelled Bahrain Grand Prix was replaced by the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix with current motorsport drivers and other celebrities competing on the Sakhir circuit as realized by Codemasters’ F1 2019 game. Notably, Codemasters already works with in-game advertising provider Bidstack to bring dynamic in-game trackside ads to titles such as DiRT Rally, with plans to extend this to another forthcoming 2020 title. In the event that F1 signs off on the idea, those advertisers looking for return on investment on currently unused out-of-home campaigns could find an interesting audience on the virtual motor racing circuit.

The Bahrain e-race was an unprecedented shop window for esports to F1 fans, many of whom would have been surprised by the verisimilitude that current games can now command. Helped by enthusiastic and knowledgeable commentary, the race felt like the real thing and had 1.7 million streams at the time of writing. Results were similarly eye-catching when Fox televised an esports competition of NASCAR (stock car) racing, also on March 22. In total, 903,000 watched the event, about half as many as the average 2.1 million viewers for actual NASCAR races in 2019. The 18–34 age group share of these two audiences was barely changed, meaning viewers outside the classic gamer demographic have likely been trying out esports.

The above figures speak to many things, including the gulf currently left for millions of consumers worldwide who plot their year by the sporting calendar. But esports has a chance to fill the vacuum, and for games increasingly indistinguishable from their real-world equivalents, the potential is particularly high to put themselves on the radar. The melding of motorsport and esports has been kick-started by the current situation, with the groundwork now strongly laid for a virtual and connected sporting future.


Further reading

Digital Consumer 2030: Services and Content, CES004-000130 (January 2020)


Dom Tait, Principal Consultant, Media and Entertainment

[email protected]

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