Esports Audiences Have Exploded In Lockdown: But Will They Stay?

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The rise of gaming and esports in recent months has been well documented.

With the COVID-19 outbreak bringing live sport to a grinding halt, online gaming – which was relatively unaffected by the saga – had its time to shine.

US telco Verizon reported a 75 per cent increase in gaming traffic during lockdown, while Streamlabs data shows usage of platforms such as Twitch, YouTube Gaming, and Facebook Gaming to have increased to the tune of 20 per cent.

For gaming publisher, developer and esports organiser Riot Games, growth in recent months has been even more pronounced.

The Oceanic Pro League – a League of Legends competition organised by Riot Games – has seen local unique viewers grow 116 per cent as an average across the split when compared to 2019.

Looking specifically at the month of April, the average audience was 239 per cent higher than 2019.

“The lockdown period has been really interesting for us,” Riot Games country manager Daniel Ringland told B&T.

“We couldn’t operate our sport as normal (the Riot Sports headquarters in Sydney has remained more or less unused) but unlike traditional sports, we were in more of a position to adapt to that.”

Rather than bringing in players to compete side-by-side on stage, OPL competitors have instead participated from the comfort of their own home.

After spending a week organising players and moving broadcast capabilities online, Riot Games was able to run the production with every single person working from home.

“It gave us a pretty big leg up in that we were able to operate our sport without anybody leaving the comfort and safety of their own home,” Ringland said.

breaking into new audiences?

While the data shows a definite rise in audience numbers for OPL, it is hard to pinpoint exactly where these viewers have come from.

An NRL fan, for example, starved of any live content in recent months may have turned to something like the OPL to fill the void.

However, it is also possible this growth is a result of existing audiences simply having more time on their hands.

“What we know is that our viewership went up significantly, what we need to now understand is the exact source of it,” said Ringland.

With the NRL having gone back last week and the AFL return fast approaching, the challenge for esports businesses such as Riot Games is how can you hang on to any new viewers as the world returns to a new ‘normal’.

“We’ve made an effort, more than ever, to increase the entertainment value of our show,” Ringland said about retaining viewers.

“We’ve focused on having our broadcast be entertaining and fun, as opposed to focusing on just in-depth analysis.”

Although it is still early days, the numbers suggest Riot Games’s entertainment blitz could be working.

“Our average view time per audience member has maintained the same,” Ringland said.

“So we’ve got a lot of new people, but the new people that are watching are still watching quite a lot. So we’re confident that’s a good sign.”

Sports vs Esports

With more eyeballs on screens than ever before, it was inevitable that advertisers would look to ride the most recent esports surge.

Ringland explained that while there has been an “increasing in conversations”, there is still a lot of confusion for brands looking to get into esports.

“You’ll hear a marketing manager say ‘we’re thinking of getting into esports’,” Ringland said.

“And the problem with that line of thinking is that saying esports is like saying sports – there are many different sports, some sports have very different demographics to others.

“Esports is a collective, not a singular.”

Some brands are further along than others when it comes to understanding the nuances of the industry, Ringland explained.

He said a common trap for brands is treating esports like it would a normal sports broadcast.

“Although out of all the traditional channels, esports looks the most like a traditional sports broadcast, it’s not like it at all,” he said.

“It’s got a lot of similarities, but also a lot of differences that present pretty unique opportunities.”


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