Thanks to COVID, you won’t be seeing many sports programs on TV anytime soon. Arenas are empty and almost every league is changed, delayed, or canceled. Without their primary sports to spend time on, we’ve seen NBA players flick sticks up to ring the shot and Nascar drivers press X to drift. The sports-to-esports player transition is, at the very least, entertaining, and we have the esports industry to thank. But what constitutes an athlete’s involvement in the esports industry, and how is that involvement shaping the public’s opinion on it?
Before COVID hit, streaming was still a new way for many professional athletes to reach out to fans who loved watching them play as themselves in-game. The first major benefit was that streaming allowed the fans to communicate better with their favorite players; laying back at home with their headphones around their ears, having a good time with the same games that many of us love, players were able to communicate 1-on-1 with their most loyal supporters without the pressure of their previous sport.
Streaming was also a great way to market video games to those otherwise uninterested in the industry. Instead of watching their favorite driver behind the wheel at the track, a diehard Nascar fan might watch that same driver fiddle with joy-sticks and awkwardly alternate between brake and accelerator. Where a fan may have enjoyed only the real deal in the past, the hilarious fun of watching a driver struggle to mimic their own driving prowess might sway their opinion. Many of the athlete’s fans may even find themselves buying the game the athletes are playing, whether to play as the athlete or to give something new a try.
Many times these players will link up together, as we’ve seen already with NBA player Meyers Leonard, who streamed Warzone for a few hours with Lebron James’ son Bronny. The cooperation between players mixes fanbases, introduces many people to both a new enjoyable activity and a new player. The resulting collective fanbase benefits both of those who contributed to it, boosting revenue and awareness. Even without cooperation, mere proximity can do wonders to raise publicity; certain athletes, after leaving matches in frustration, found themselves faced with a swarm of new attention.
However, it hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows: Nascar and NBA players both met criticism from fans and lost sponsors after the transition to esports, with many former supporters claiming their new preoccupation was “just a video game.” Some fans just couldn’t care less because it didn’t feel the same without swarms of people showing up to the games as a family or regional bickering over which teams are best. While a horde of fans have been gained, so too have people been lost, as not everyone is interested in watching athletes play video games. While the concept isn’t as foreign as it used to be, it’s still going to take a lot of work to wiggle esports into the mainstream spotlight. Pro athletes were already working on it before COVID, but with many former enthusiasts forced to stay home, the content produced has gone into overdrive. Moreover, like the many other aspects of our lives we find changing, so too is the quest for entertainment only taking new forms, leaving once-hesitant fans now fully-fledged supporters of gaming. If athlete and celebrity support of esports continues in the next few years, it may not be much longer until people are as familiar with professional esports stars as regular professional athletes. They might not even be able to tell the difference.