The Impact of COVID-19 on Esports: How Leagues Adapted and Thrived

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We’re still feeling the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the globe, millions of people are living with the long-term impact of the illness, with long COVID forcing many out of work or extended periods of sick leave. On the high street, many storefronts now lay abandoned, with once buoyant businesses forced to close their doors after extended bouts of lockdown-imposed closure.

However, some industries have managed to weather the COVID-19 storm surprisingly well. While brick-and-mortar retail suffered heavily during the pandemic, online retail went from strength to strength. Meanwhile, the video games market saw a surge in sales, helping offset a decline that had been sapping the industry for several years. The impact of COVID-19 on esports is more complex, bringing both industry-enhancing benefits and unwanted side effects.

Event Cancellations

In an effort to stem the spread of COVID, many world governments imposed lockdowns, severely limiting free travel both domestically and internationally. In the US, the first state-wide lockdown was introduced in March 2020. Elsewhere in the world, more stringent lockdowns were already in place, with China imposing some of the most severe.

The impact of lockdowns and an outright ban on international travel hit the esports industry particularly hard. With no way for competitors and audiences to travel, hosting a traditional LAN effort was simply impossible. By the summer of 2020, a spate of cancellations had already been announced, with many online formats also facing cancellation or postponement.

Some of the events affected included the East Coast Throwdown, Tokyo Game Show, Ubisoft Forward, and EVO 2020 Online. One of the most significant cancellations was that of The International (TI), with the annual August fixture struck from the esports calendar. Fortunately, Dota 2 fans wouldn’t have to wait long to see its return, with the 2021 edition in Bucharest seeing Team Spirit walk home with the lion’s share of a record-breaking prize pool.

Other events, such as the League of Legends European Championship (LEC), also felt the bite of COVID. The LEC’s spring season was originally postponed due to COVID, before being suspended entirely by the middle of March. Fortunately, the season would reconvene on 20 March, with the caveat that all games would be played online. By 2021, the European Championship had returned to its usual playing format, with no COVID disruptions since. Keen to find out who’s dominating the tournament today? Click here for the latest LEC schedule 2024.

Impact on Sponsorship Deals

As well as disappointing fans and preventing esports professionals from being able to engage in competition, these event cancellations caused disruption to usual revenue streams. Sponsorship deals and advertising revenues have always been a big money-maker for esports. Faced with the cancellation of so many LAN events, the likes of Intel and Red Bull were forced to pull the plug. While many events did shift to an online-only model, event organizers were forced to rely on online advertising revenues, rather than the usual sponsorship deals and ticket sales.

Increase in Online Viewing Numbers

One positive effect of the COVID-19 pandemic was that lockdowns encouraged more people to engage with esports and video games in general. Worldwide, the number of casual gamers increased as people sought other ways to keep themselves entertained during long lockdown stretches. Meanwhile, esports viewing numbers hit an all-time high. In 2019, global audiences averaged out at 252 million. By 2020, the overall esports audience stood at 435 million.

While lockdowns were eventually relaxed by the end of 2020 and LAN events began to welcome back live spectators, online viewership has never really faded. In fact, audience sizes continue to grow, with live event attendance also on the rise. If anything, COVID has cemented esports as a legitimate spectator event, whether tournaments are being played online or staged at the biggest arenas on the planet.

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