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The State of Esports Around the World Amidst COVID-19



As many sports seasons around the world have been suspended due to COVID-19, most notably the NBA and the MLB in the United States, many sports fans are eagerly awaiting the full return of professional sports once the pandemic passes, although when exactly that will happen remains uncertain. Even as a handful of sports leagues are just starting to resume their seasons, changes to the season format also have to be made to accommodate for the lost time. Not only that, another form of sports entertainment, namely “esports,” has been quickly growing not only in order to fill the sports void, but also to become an economically viable alternative to traditional sports in a post-COVID world. Indeed, the esports industry as a whole has reported a record-breaking $1 billion US dollars in revenue in 2019, and this number is only expected to increase with each passing year. But while many professional esports leagues are not completely immune to COVID-19 either, facing their own set of setbacks during this time, the unique nature of esports allows it to survive (and perhaps thrive) through the pandemic in ways that traditional sports cannot.

What Is An Esport?

Before I continue, I want to be clear regarding what exactly an “esport” (or even a “sport”) is. Indeed, such terms can be deceptively hard to define as there have been many debates surrounding the question: “is X a sport?” One might think that a sport needs to test a person’s physical abilities or be a spectator sport, for example. However, there is a more formal definition given by the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF, formerly SportAccord), which defines a sport as including all of the following criteria:

  • having an element of competition,
  • not including any elements of luck or random chance,
  • not being harmful to living creatures, and
  • not relying on equipment provided by a single supplier.

Notice that there is no criteria stating that a sport must have a physical element to it, meaning that “esports,” or sports involving the use of video games, should not be regarded as something separate from traditional sports, but rather be regarded as a subset of all sports instead. Even other games that only require intellectual ability such as chess or Go are eligible under this definition as well (these games are classified under the term “mind sports“).

Which video games can be considered “esports?”

For a sport to be an Olympic sport, however, it usually means that it must fulfill the previously mentioned criteria. Unfortunately, this means that many of the most popular video games that are considered “esports” today, such as League of Legends or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, may not be suitable candidates to be an “Olympic esport.” While these games do have large competitive scenes, the random elements that are built-in to these games, no matter how big or small, can be means for disqualification. In the case of League of Legends, this includes rotating dragons (random interactable objects in the play field before and during a match) and critical hits (random chance of dealing extra damage). In the case of CS:GO (as well as many other first-person or third-person shooter games), some guns can have “bullet spread,” where the trajectory of each bullet can deviate from the player’s crosshairs by a random direction and amount, potentially deciding whether a bullet hits or misses a target.

That being said, I want to highlight a few video games where the possibility of being an “Olympic esport” does exist. The most obvious examples would include games that simulate traditional sports, such as the FIFA series for football/soccer or iRacing for motorsport racing. In the case of the latter, virtual races also include the use of racing game controllers to bring the driving skills necessary for physical races into the virtual world, and some real-life NASCAR drivers even made the transition to virtual races as well, creating an esport where it and its physical counterpart are not too far different from each other.

As for games that can potentially create entirely new sports, one that comes to mind is Rocket League, a game which can simply be described as “football, but with rocket-powered cars instead of people.” While not completely original in its concept, it is a game that is only possible to execute in the virtual world (or at least more difficult in the real world), and the fact that it is similar to existing sports means that all spectators with varying degrees of knowledge of the game can still watch, understand, and enjoy the game.

Another possible game is a personal favorite of mine: Dance Dance Revolution, which, while the game was originally intended to be a dancing simulator, requires an immense amount of physical ability and coordination to achieve high scores on the most difficult songs in the game. Indeed, the game is sometimes compared to running a sprint or marathon in terms of aerobic activity, and multiple studies have been conducted to determine the effectiveness of DDR as a fitness or weight loss tool (one such study is here). With physical activity being a de facto requirement for a sport to a mainstream audience, the differences between a sport and a “physical esport” should begin to blur with games like DDR. Although, with the decline of both arcades and rhythm games around the world in general (especially arcades during the current pandemic), among other reasons, DDR has been in a difficult spot in terms of viability as a mainstream esport.

All this being said, however, there is one more wrinkle than can prevent many popular video games from being a sport by GAISF standards, in particular the fact that many games are owned by a single private developer or publisher. While the PC hardware required to play a video game can come from many different companies and sources, the software for the games themselves might not, potentially violating the “not relying on equipment provided by a single supplier” criterion. In this case, “suppliers” may also include anyone who owns the copyright to a certain game, restricting how the game can be sold, licensed, or performed to the public. Cases of publishers blocking games from tournament appearances have already happened in Japan, for instance, as was the case for fighting games Dragon Ball FighterZ and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in EVO Japan 2019 (not to mention Japan’s gambling laws restricting the growth of esports in the country as well). This is an issue most traditional sports do not have to face (no private entity owns football/soccer, for instance), so perhaps we need to turn to free and open-source games such as StepMania (a multi-platform game that simulates several rhythm games including DDR) for potential “Olympic esports” games instead.

The State of Esports Today

In the Olympics

Speaking of the Olympics, it is sad to hear that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics has been postponed to 2021, but why am I still talking about it when no esports games are scheduled to be included in the competition? Anyone who has not been following news regarding the Olympics may not know that, in fact, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been debating the inclusion of esports since 2017. Although, the IOC later stated that it will only consider sports simulation games for inclusion in the Olympics, and that games with violent elements “are contradictory to the Olympic values and cannot therefore be accepted.” Given games like CS:GO, for example, where the player assumes the role of a “terrorist” or “counter-terrorist” and tries to kill the opposing team, the sentiment is understandable. But given games like Rocket League or DDR, which contain no violence at all, or League of Legends, which at worst contains nothing more than “fantasy violence,” where the line should actually be drawn is much less clear. As of now, only virtual sailing is reported to be coming to the Paris 2024 Olympics, although it will likely only be held as a demonstration event rather than be an integral part of the Games themselves.

Despite the IOC’s stance on esports, however, a recent poll shows that more than half of all Americans believe esports should be a part of the Olympics regardless, as well as believe esports may take over physical sports as the primary form of sports entertainment. And with the average age of an Olympic viewer increasing with each event, and the generational gap between esports and traditional sports only getting wider, perhaps it can be said that the Olympics needs esports more than esports needs the Olympics. With Olympics youth viewership going down as esports viewership is going up, the question we maybe should be asking is not “if” esports will be a part of the Olympics, but “when.”

Around the World Amidst COVID-19

Regardless, outside of the Olympics, esports has been making efforts every year to gain mainstream credibility as a form of sports entertainment overall, and there have been many different strategies implemented by game developers and the esports industry in order to achieve that. One example I want to briefly highlight is the creation of professional franchise leagues for popular esports games, with the Overwatch League being one that is most similar in structure to traditional sports leagues in America. With city-based teams, a regular season and playoffs format, and traditional revenue streams (including major sponsorship deals and physical sports merchandise), the only apparent difference between it and traditional sports leagues seems to be the game itself.

After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the remaining homestand events in the 2020 season, matches scheduled to take place in sports stadiums around the world, were forced to be canceled. Most other esports tournaments and events since then have been either moved online or cancelled entirely as well. Unlike traditional sports, however, games like Overwatch have the luxury of being able to transition to online matches for league play and resuming the season in the middle of the pandemic (although not without changes to the season format like other sports leagues). Still, online play itself has its own set of challenges and setbacks that prevent it from being able to replicate face-to-face competition. The biggest disadvantage of online play is network latency, i.e. the amount of time it takes for player inputs to be received by a host server. The longer the physical distance between the players and the host server, the higher the latency will be and the less time players will have to react to the actions of other players. This is why many professional esports matches prefer to be conducted in a single enclosed space in a LAN environment, where near-zero latency can be achieved, but the move to online matches has been the next best solution for many games as the pandemic continues.


Just as the pandemic has forced many of us to quickly shift to a different way of life (one that is more physically disconnected while virtually connected), I believe that the presence of COVID-19 will only accelerate the progression of the trends I previously discussed. Esports matches continue with limited interruptions while traditional sports struggle to survive. More and more people around the world are moving from the television to the Internet as their primary medium for information and entertainment. Esports viewership as a whole has been steadily increasing while traditional sports viewership has been decreasing. While I do not think it is likely that traditional sports will disappear entirely in the future, the fact that future pandemics can still threaten to cancel entire matches and seasons without many virtual alternatives really brings the financial stability of the entire industry into question. And as many new games and esports have emerged in recent years, one can only wonder which esport(s) will finally reach mainstream popularity first and when.

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