‘Something Needs to Fill That Void.’ As Stadiums Go Quiet, Esports Are Having a Moment
Unless you’re into marble racing or Belarusian hockey, you’re probably having a hard time finding any sports to watch right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the NBA and NHL seasons into limbo, MLB’s opening day came and went with nary a knuckleball or bat flip, and the Olympics are being put off until 2021.
But one form of sporting event lives on in the age of social distancing: Esports, or competitive video gaming, is on the rise, with people tuning in to everything from Counter-Strike to League of Legends. Viewership on Twitch, the go-to site for game streamers, is up 31% in March, by one estimate. People stuck inside are playing more video games, no doubt. But they’re also watching the world’s best gamers take one another on, too.
“Sports are out and something needs to fill that void,” says Chance “Maux” Moncivaez, who plays Call of Duty: Modern Warfare player on the Florida Mutineers, an esports team. “I think esports is perfect to fill that void because of the ability to play online competitions.”
It’s not that the coronavirus outbreak has totally spared the esports world. The biggest, most well-funded competitions, like Activision-Blizzard’s Overwatch League, are held in-person in massive arenas like Madison Square Garden, often before sellout crowds. With big gatherings off the table, those events have been canceled, disrupting a business that counts in part on ticket and merch sales. But unlike basketball or hockey, it’s possible to shift esports back online, where they began — it just takes a little doing.
“It is possible to train, and compete, and continue competition and create entertainment,” says Steve Arhancet, owner of Team Liquid, an esports organization that represents 70 players across 17 different games. “It’s all possible. But it’s not like the flip of a switch.”
One issue, says Arhancet, is making sure that players don’t cheat when they’re not under the watchful eye of a referee. “Aimbots,” or software that automatically aims at enemy players in shooter games, are one popular trick — think of them as the esports’ world sign-stealing controversy. Then there’s the simple issue of making sure every player has a good enough Internet connection to compete on equal footing; the tiniest bit of lag can result in a missed shot or miscast spell.
“We can get there,” says Arhancet. “We can do these things. We will be more resilient than a lot of professional sports industries. But how long will it take? Each game will handle that a little bit differently.”