A crowd packed with 76ers Gaming Club fans are seen during the game against Celtics Crossover Gaming during the NBA 2K League Playoffs on July 26, 2019 at the NBA 2K Studio in Long Island City, New York.

Steven Freeman | NBAE via Getty Images

Miss the thrill of watching a game-winning buzzer beater? The rush of seeing a no-hitter or walk-off home run?

The coronavirus has led to the abrupt hiatuses of the NBA, Major League Baseball and other popular sporting events, like March Madness and the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. But esports leagues are making it possible for star athletes, like NBA all-star Kevin Durant, to compete in tournaments. The events are raising money for COVID-19 relief charities, and providing television networks like ESPN and Fox Sports a new way to fill airtime.

Starting Friday, the NBA, the NBA Player Association and the video game company Take-Two Interactive and its 2K studio, which produces the popular game “NBA 2K2020,” will partner with Disney‘s ESPN to air an esports tournament that features the likes of Durant, Trae Young and other NBA players. Durant was among the NBA players to test positive for the coronavirus but since has been cleared and is symptom-free.

Fox Corp.‘s Fox Sports also aired an esports-NFL tournament on March 29 that featured former NFL pro bowler Michael Vick, among other NFL athletes, playing the popular Electronic Arts football game, “Madden 20.” Winners of these tournaments are presenting donations as high as $100,000 to COVID-19 relief charities.

“It is only natural that sports stars are going to use platforms to reach their fans when live games are not in place,” said Frost & Sullivan analyst and streaming media expert Dan Rayburn, adding that this trend has been growing for a few years.

Popular athletes, including Pittsburgh Steelers pro bowl receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and former CY Young winner and Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell, have been streaming video games for fans from well before the coronavirus, often on Amazon’s Twitch, a videogame streaming platform.

“The real question is, what does this do for the future of gaming?” Rayburn said.

Like many tech ventures of the 21st century, the esports industry has seen a tremendous boom in revenue and demand. In 2019, Newzoo, an industry research group, estimated that gaming would reach $1 billion in revenue, increasing by 27% from 2018. And gamers around the globe are competing in tournaments, taking home millions of dollars while also developing mass followings. Plus, media conglomerates, sports ownership groups and athletes are investing in esports.  

Madison Square Garden Co., owner of the New York Knicks, also owns Counter Logic Gaming, an organization that fields several pro esports teams and produces esports events at the Garden. Knicks Gaming is one of the 23 esports teams comprising the NBA 2K League, a joint venture between the NBA and Take-Two Interactive. The Cleveland Cavaliers have their own Cavs Legion Gaming Club. T-Wolves Gaming, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2K team, already has a state-of-the-art training facility in Minneapolis.

Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban also has invested in esports, but last October he made some negative comments about the current U.S. business opportunity. In an interview with Fox Sports 1 last October, Cuban said, “In aggregate, it’s a good business. Is it growing? Yes. But domestically here in the United States, it’s an awful business.”

In a more recent interview, with DallasBasketball.com, since the coronavirus outbreak, Cuban said, “The capacity of NBA players to play video games, it’s limitless! I had no idea so many of them were gamers. I knew we had a few guys, but it seems like it’s every player!”

Appearing on ESPN’s “Get Up” on Wednesday, Cuban was less optimistic about when the NBA may return to games, saying he had “no idea.” Previously, Cuban had been hoping for a mid-May return date.

A chance for esports to seize prime time

Gaming analyst Scott Steinberg said this is the esports industry’s chance to permanently seize some of the prime-time spotlight that has traditionally gone to the MLB, NFL and NBA. 

“We are reaching a point where the average person probably grew up with gaming in their household,” said Steinberg, head of video game consulting for Tech Savvy. “All eyes are on online gaming, and they now have a chance to shine.”

Networks like ESPN and Fox Sports are hungry for content. But streaming a game of “NBA 2K2020” on ESPN does not automatically mean that the network will generate the same levels of elongated success as platforms like Twitch have.

Laurel Walzak, a professor who specializes in esports at Ryerson University, is optimistic about the future of gaming and its ability to convert sports fans into gaming fans down the road. But the conversion process does not come without its fair share of obstacles.

“The motivation for watching a live sports event is different than streaming an esports game,” Walzak said. “An ESPN broadcast features different camera angles, audio, music, and on-air talent. When it’s sports video games on Twitch, the visuals of the games, players and their hands and eyes matter most,” not all the charisma that comes along with a Monday Night Football game.

Nonetheless, Walzak stressed that televising esports is here to stay and the coronavirus pandemic will serve as a trial-and-error period for the gaming industry, allowing TV executives to further understand “what motivates consumers to watch and convert to watching gaming.”

Some pro athletes believe esports may be able to stand toe-to-toe with live sporting events, especially if fans are hesitant to return to stadiums even after the coronavirus social-distancing period ends. 

Fans also like the “personal element” that esports streaming brings to the table, according to Seattle Mariners outfielder Jake Fraley. “Fans like having access to players and being able to talk while they stream,” Fraley said. “It gives them an experience that is not a part of the norm.”

“Esports is the only game in town right now,” Steinberg said. “There is always going to be demand for live sporting events, but more and more, you are going to see esports become a part of that equation.”

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