The impact of coronavirus on ‘the biggest sport you’ve never heard of’

The esports industry will suffer due to the coronavirus pandemic, two industry leaders have acknowledged.

But Nicolas Maurer, CEO and co-founder of Team Vitality, and Wouter Sleijffers, CEO at Excel Sports, believe professional gaming is in a strong position to see out the crisis.

Traditional sports have seen fixtures postponed and tournaments cancelled – such as Euro 2020 and the Tokyo Olympics – which in turn will cause a drop in revenues.

From the outside, esports is seen as a solitary pastime. The truth is it is a multi-billion pound industry played out in front of packed stadiums with its players as famous as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

It is these stadium events and the weekly tournaments held around the world that will suffer.

Maurer told the PA news agency: “A common misconception is it is all online.

“Online doesn’t really happen in professional esports. There are tournaments every weekend, players can be playing 30-36 weeks a year.

“But we can continue playing online. The silver lining is esports can continue.”

Big brands sponsor esports events, and Maurer believes those relationships are not under threat.

Excel Sports. Handout photo
Excel Sports. Handout photo

“A big chunk of our revenue comes from sponsorship – but you need to separate existing partners and new partners,” he said.

“It will be hard to get new contracts. But back to our current partners – adidas, Renault, Red Bull – we have a very close relationship with them and in constant communication with them.

“They see the opportunities that esports offer and can live with the current situation. A big question mark is around new deals – that will severely affect the industry.”

Sleijffers admitted to “a short-term impact”.

He said: “We are going back to online play in that regard so not much negative impact. But there are obviously logistical challenges in bringing back online play such as stability of internet connections.

“We are digital natives so it’s a fairly easy shift for us. We see more opportunities than challenges. Of course there are uncertainties but we are in a good position though.”

Both Maurer and Sleijffers accept that esports is still to break into the mainstream, but feel giant strides have been made in recent years.

Maurer said: “It’s still a niche. You have no idea about it if not in that community. It’s not easy to get in because most of the games are not easy to understand as a viewer.

“Football is easy to grasp but most esports games are very complex and only for people who truly understand it. That being said it is rapidly changing.

“I have spoken to lots of mainstream media – that wouldn’t have been possible in 2014. We would love more mainstream coverage and audience and welcome newcomers.”

Sleijffers believes professional gamers have the same influence as pop stars and sporting personalities.

“In music you have Ed Sheeran – there’s lots of people like following him not just for his music but his lifestyle,” he said.

“You see it in sport as well. People love the lifestyle element of it. That’s what esports brings, the lifestyle element. Sometimes if you say you like gaming it is seen as taboo, people do not like talking about it.

“These players are good. They are creative, they are heroes, there is drama, there are great stories to be told.

“But it’s the biggest sport you’ve never heard of.”