There were some important differences. Rather than being an individual race, it was run as a team, it was much shorter than the current Tour and most importantly it involved riders sitting on their bikes indoors connected to the Zwift virtual cycling system. Still, for the audience that tunes in through YouTube, it’s easy to mistake this for an actual broadcast of a road race, as the graphics mimic the physical map and terrain of the route. Even the posted commentary was similar.
The Tour is the latest in a full line of digital innovations that brought the sport into the homes of millions of people during the COVID-19 lockdown, when they all had to press pause on their physical event schedules.
Yet the groundwork for these experiences was laid in January, when the President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, asked all International Sports Federations to define their esports strategy. The urgency is all the more evident when we observe that all these sports sponsors – and broadcasters – are already aligning their brands with esport.
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Coca-Cola, Intel and Samsung, among many others, are already heavily invested in esports. David Beckham’s new Guild Esports company has announced that it will be building a professional esports team for the 21st century version of football, Rocket League, a video game in which players race cars through an arena driving a bullet to an objective using the Battlefy online platform.
Practically the same
COVID-19 has accelerated the alignment of elite sports industries with esports – and even those who previously dismissed esport as not like real sport now have the IOC President to face. Bach noted that platforms like Zwift were absolutely identical to sports, suggesting a future in which virtual sports could be a bigger part of the elite sports scene. It is perhaps no coincidence that the IOC Esports Liaison Group is chaired by the President of the International Union of Cyclists, David Lappartient.
Shortly after the lockdown began, sports were racing to jump into virtual action. Among the first was Formula 1, which was pushed to produce “Not the Australian Grand Prix” when its race in Melbourne was called off. In partnership with Veloce Esports, F1’s first digital event used its official computer game to produce a unique experience, where players, F1 drivers and celebrities come together to race on the Australian track.
In the end, esports racer Daniel Bereznay took the checkered flag with former Dutch racing driver turned simulation driver Jarno Opmeer in second.
In April, ATP and WTA hosted an esport tennis competition instead of the Mutua Madrid Open, using the video game Nacon’s Tennis World Tour. Once again, some of the biggest names in the world have come together to compete. Briton Andy Murray won the title.
Also in April, we saw the Virtual Grand National take place for the fourth time. This year has been special, because – thanks to COVID-19, there has been no accompanying physical race. Instead, racing fans – and gamers – could log on to YouTube and watch a computer-generated horse race, all of which were expected starters for the actual race. The winner was decided before the firing of the starting gun, based on the rider’s previous form, the conditions of the day, among other factors.
This algorithm-based sport may not sound like much sport to many – but it worked. We can expect to see a significant amount of revenue generated from the gaming opportunities around virtual sports.
Football took a long time to return to the pitch and many clubs began to experiment with innovations in stadiums. By the time the players were back on the pitch – without spectators – some clubs had set up giant screens inside the stadium giving the impression of thousands of fans. Clubs have also experimented with virtual reality to train players, and real-time canned audience sounds have become part of a new audiovisual production language.
The International Basketball Federation was next, producing the world’s first international esports version of its sport in May using the NBA 2K game. While the game has yet to impress players, it has done well to bring new audiences to basketball at a time when no live events were taking place.
Finally, a lot of esports also happened during the lockdown, taking up the space where many of these budding sports brands are looking to locate. The game has indeed had a very good lockdown – data shows that game sales and usage have increased significantly in 2020.
New ways to play
Lockdown has brought esports further into the mainstream – even the BBC has broadcast events on its digital platform. We’ve also seen how the creative and cultural industries come together around esports titles. Noteworthy are the virtual concerts that took place in Fortnite, especially the spectacular performance of American rapper Travis Scott, which could only be seen live if you were logged in as a player in Fortnite, prompting fans to download the title just to see the concert.
In the same way that social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram are establishing new markets and audiences, esport and sports virtualization show how new economies are emerging around new and digital sports experiences through platforms of games.
While many COVID-19 esports events from international sports federations have been more showcase events than elite competitions, they have paved the way for the emergence of a new standard, not just for participants. , but for the many industries that produce media events.