The debate over whether esports are “real sports” has been ongoing for years. But no one ever asked: What if esports are the only sports?
In the time of COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus, that might as well be true.
“Esports” is a type of sporting event where players compete in video games, like League of Legends, Overwatch, NBA 2K and more. While professional esports tournaments are typically played from a central location — for example, the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) airs from a studio in Santa Monica — this is primarily for the purpose of running a show for viewers. The games themselves, however, can be played from anywhere.
As the NBA, MLB and NHL seasons were suspended and a stay-at-home order was issued statewide, the LCS and Overwatch League (OWL) — the two largest California-based esports tournaments currently in operation — decided that they had to continue on, turning to completely online broadcasts. Both leagues are currently streaming to hundreds of thousands of viewers while players, production teams and casters are all at home.
The new format came with some mishaps. The LCS and OWL both suffered technical difficulties in their first online-only trials. Players commented on the strangeness of competing without teammates or fans, and casters struggled with the audio issues that come from working at home, such as noisy outdoor construction.
Almost a month later, however, the leagues have hit their stride. From a viewer’s perspective, the streams operate almost as if nothing ever happened, a welcome breath of normalcy in a chaotic time.
The quarantine has even provided new opportunities for engagement, with on-air talent bringing their adorable pets to the internet. Joshua “Jatt” Leesman, a commentator for the LCS, pet his shiba inu onstream at the clamoring insistence of Twitch chat. Nori, a black cat owned by OWL desk host Soe Gschwind, banned the hero Mei from Week 8 matches by picking one of seven cards.
Camera-ready pets aren’t the only novelties that have been introduced to the esports community. With every traditional sports competition suspended, esports has been unexpectedly ushered into the limelight.
On Friday, the NBA launched its own NBA 2K tournament, during which pros like Kevin Durant will play virtual basketball for a $100,000 charity donation. NASCAR’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series aired to 1.3 million viewers via Fox Sports 1 on March 29.
On an individual level, professional baseball and basketball players have turned to livestreaming video games while they’re at home, interacting with viewers and giving fans a taste of the personal access that is commonplace when it comes to esports stars.
Some esports tournaments are even coming to the small screen, filling the void left by cancellations. The LCS playoffs will air on ESPN2 on Saturday, the first time that League of Legends will appear on any of ESPN’s live television channels. (The 2019 League of Legends World Championship appeared on the ESPN app and ESPN+, ESPN’s video streaming subscription service.)
Of course, esports isn’t completely immune to the effects of COVID-19. The LCS Spring Finals, which were slated to be played in Dallas, Texas, was moved back to Los Angeles, and the OWL “homestands,” during which teams play in the cities that they represent, were all canceled in the move to online-only broadcasts.
Despite the changes and the catastrophe around them, the esports community seems to have rallied together, celebrating the resilience of their favorite competitions during the pandemic.
Responses to the online broadcasts have been overwhelmingly positive, praising the efforts of the production teams and talent. Esports and gaming-specific COVID-19 relief initiatives have also sprung up; from “Gamers vs. COVID-19” to #PlayApartTogether, game studios and players around the world have embraced the unique social connection that video games allow in a strange and uncertain time.
While arenas across the country sit empty, it’s clear that esports was more than prepared to step up to the plate.