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Can eSports Fill The Void?

Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images/AFP

Adaptation has become a theme during this time of global uncertainty and that's what sportsbooks around the globe are embracing with their necessary move into the eSports realm. With sports leagues all over the globe shutting down due to the coronavirus, rabid sports betting fans have been searching for an outlet. With Russian Hockey and Volleyball and Sudanese Professional Soccer not quite filling that void, many sportsbooks and bettors are turning to eSports to get their wagering fix.

Let's face it, there is nothing that can replace the thrill of competition and the action provided by the best athletes on the planet putting it all on the line. In the absence of such events, something had to step up to fill the void and many insiders have identified eSports as that stop-gap.

What is eSports?

Quite simply, eSports is, as Jason Ader, CEO of SpringOwl Asset Management explained: "computer playing against the computer.” It's virtual gaming that has a winner, a loser and other opportunities for prop betting along the way. Popular examples of eSports are League of Legends, eWorld of Warcraft, Starcraft II, and FIFA. It’s essentially simulated games that people can bet on.

While eSports packs stadiums for in-person events each year, games take place online, meaning that quarantine and self-isolation haven't affected the product all that much. ESports has been in the background with many sportsbooks, but those who saw value in it will see it paying off sooner rather than later if things keep going the way they are.

ESports simulation games include F1 2019, NBA 2K20, NHL 20, and FIFA 20 along with the more traditional Fantasy side of the platform. League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Rocket League, Overwatch Dota 2 are getting a fair bit of airtime – those games were recently featured in an ESPN article.

The rise

With the global shutdown of societal norms still relatively new, we can't yet measure just how much eSports has gained in popularity. Some year-over-year figures have suggested that eSports betting was up 19% from 2019 to 2020 – those figures came out well before the coronavirus pandemic.

Video gaming has grown exponentially around the world the last few years and sportsbooks, although a bit slow on the uptake have taken notice and have been looking to cash in on its popularity. It has its sports and games, it has global superstars and marquee events that fans and players look forward to, not unlike the sports leagues that are currently shuttered indefinitely.

At no time has the focus of eSports been more intense. “I suspect this could be a moment for eSports. If it isn’t, it will never be.” said Jason Ader.

Surprising Support from Pro leagues

Sports leagues and eSports have never been huge fans of each other but desperate times call for desperate measures. Sports leagues and associations are actually teaming up to provide content and keep bettors engaged in sport.

The biggest example of this comes in motorsports. Formula One and NASCAR have gone all-in in simulated racing series. The Virtual Grand Prix Series has actually had current F1 drivers compete and NASCAR teams and drivers are prepping to go head-to-head in virtual racing competitions.

Simulation had been just a tool to train in the past. Now it's seen as a way to keep bettors engaged and for actual racing series' and drivers to maintain their profile.

The NBA and NBA 2K20 have formed an unusual relationship with the Phoenix Suns, the first team to announce that they would play out the rest of its season on NBA 2K20 with the broadcasts on Twitch. FIFA is on the board with the announcement of a 128-team FIFA charity tournament and the NBA's Washington Wizards and NHL's Washington Capitals announced plans to broadcast through NBA 2K20 and NHL 20.

eSports here to stay

You won’t hear anybody saying “Whew! Thank goodness for the coronavirus” but the global pandemic has given rise to certain industries. E-Gaming just happens to be one. And with sports stars and sports fanatics having way too much time on their hands, eSports has a chance to weave its way into the fabric of American life.

While eSports may not be able to maintain its profile once the world, including sports comes back to normal, it does look as though it is here to stay. How much it will detract from actual sporting events in the future remains to be seen.