Esports popularity explodes

By Michael Roberts | posted on April 24, 2020

WITH traditional sports like footy and cricket taking an enforced hiatus during the COVID-19 crisis, Esports has taken control of the driver’s seat as viewers flock to watch their favourite sports stars try their hand at online games.

For the uninitiated, Esports or simply electronic sports, sees professional video gamers compete for glory in online tournaments, with sometimes millions watching around the world through streaming sites like Twitch.

It’s a multi-billion dollar industry, with the top-tier players taking in huge earnings through prize money, sponsorship and endorsements.

And now the growth and viewership of Esports has taken off during isolation as sports fanatics turn to what is one of the only alternatives to regular live competition.

Unable to host real life races, motorsports like IndyCar, Formula 1 and Australian Super Cars are all holding virtual tournaments to fill the void.

Ball sports are also getting in on the action too, with the NBA hosting an online players tournament and some of the biggest clubs in European football getting involved in representative gaming competitions.

With the Australian Supercars Championships suspended until June, a BP Supercars Allstars Eseries is taking place via an iRacing computer simulation platform, with Supercars drivers contesting the race from their respective homes.

The action is being broadcast live on Fox Sports, Kayo and on Facebook, with over 350,000 people tuning in from around the world to watch round one of the online action.

Australian Esports League Executive Director Darren Kwan said the COVID-19 shutdown had brought in a new type of audience to the Esports space because there was a lack of content.

“It’s a significant growth period for the Esports industry,” he said.

“It’s been a huge leap. It’s been explosive.”

Mr Kwan said virtual motorsport was easily the fastest growing market.

“Bringing in the superstar power of the drivers and the race teams into it really worked,” he said.

“You look at the existing races that had audiences of 800 watching and now they’ve got audiences in the hundreds of thousands watching.”

In a sensational coup, Supercars recruited Formula 1 superstar Max Verstappen as a wildcard for round two of its Allstars Eseries, with the Belgian star finishing second at the virtual Barcelona circuit behind close friend Shane van Gisbergen.

Speaking to Fox Sports, Verstappen said the whole race was a lot of fun.

“These cars are definitely not easy to drive,” he said.

“I really enjoyed it.”

The races are proving a hit all over the country, including locally in Albany, with GoldMX radio host and self-confessed racing fanatic Damien Watson telling the Weekender he was impressed by the quality of production.

“It’s literally like watching the V8s on the weekend,” he said.

“You’ve even got Neil Crompton doing the commentary. They do a great job, it’s extremely professional. It surprised me.”

Mr Watson doesn’t just love watching motorsports; he is passionately involved in iRacing too and has even had the chance to race with the like of van Gisbergen during online practice sessions.

“I love watching them race, but I hate seeing how good they are compared to me,” he said.

“I have been on the track with a couple of them, and they make me look amateur, and I’ve been doing this most of my life.”

Mr Watson said iRacing had been around for about a decade, but participation had skyrocketed since the COVID-19 shutdown.

“It’s about three times the amount of users online you would normally see at any one time now,” he said.

“This is a way for Esports to get into the mainstream. This is reaching a target audience Esports could have only dreamed of.”

Such is the momentum, Mr Kwan said the Australian Esports League had been approached by local councils and state governments to set-up online tournaments for various PG-rated games where residents could get together and form some friendly competition.

“That’s something we never thought would happen,” he said.

“There are a lot of bored people at home who need this to take their mind off things.”