From NBA2K to eNASCAR, are e-sports the new, well, sports?

April 9, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC

“Gentlemen, start your engines,” rang the familiar refrain. And on cue, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, and other drivers all got ready to race. Only instead of firing up their cars at the Dixie Vodka 400 in Miami, the NASCAR drivers practiced social distancing and were nowhere near one another—or their cars, for that matter.

Instead, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Series, which aired live on Fox Sports 1 on March 22, was a multiplayer e-sports competition. The drivers, in essence, were playing a NASCAR video game (though one a bit more polished than home users play). No rubber? No road? No problem. More than 900,000 viewers tuned in to the televised races, regardless.

Over the past few weeks—after the NBA, Major League Baseball, and other major sports leagues canceled or postponed their seasons because of the coronavirus pandemic—the nation’s thirst for sports has become overwhelming. Meanwhile, from virtual car races to online basketball games to the television debut of Rocket League (a video game that combines automotive combat and soccer), e-sports has risen to the moment, giving millions of sports fans something to cheer about.

The change has been most evident at ESPN, which was hit especially hard by virtually every major sport suspending play. On Sunday, April 5, the Disney-owned sports broadcaster hosted 12 hours of e-sports programming on ESPN2, including the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix which featured current Formula 1 drivers Charles Leclerc, Alex Albon, George Russell, Lando Norris, and Nicholas Latifi. 

Daniel Suarez, driver of the No. 96 Commscope Toyota, participates in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series Race–O’Reilly Auto Parts 125 at virtual Texas Motor Speedway on March 29, 2020, in Fort Worth.
NASCAR/Getty Images

NBC Sports, meanwhile, streamed the Indycar iRacing Challenge on its website and app last weekend. The event featured more than two dozen drivers competing on the virtual track. This week, the Comcast-owned programmer will host another series of NASCAR e-sports events.

Fox Sports 1, however, has kept its foot on the gas. A week after airing the eNASCAR iRacing event, it followed up with another online auto race on March 29. This one took place, virtually, at Texas Motor Speedway and drew 1.3 million viewers, setting another record.

While e-sports audience numbers seem to be suddenly buoyant, the leagues (and their fans) didn’t just arrive overnight.

“The market was already there, it just wasn’t visible to the mainstream audience,” says Mike Hickey, senior equity analyst at The Benchmark Co. “Now that you don’t have traditional sports, you’re just surfacing what has been hiding beneath the water until now.”

But they have also opened the floodgates for networks, sports leagues, and other video game companies alike to lure traditional fans to e-sports, as the big leagues wait sidelined.

Activision-Blizzard, for instance, has reportedly received inquiries from television networks about broadcasting its Overwatch League again. The league’s matches previously aired on ABC and ESPN, but the deal ended after last season. According to a report by The Esports Observer, NBC has been in talks with the game publisher, and others may have reached out as well.

Meanwhile, as the NBA would normally be putting the wraps on its regular season, The NBA 2K League recently hosted an online 3-on-3 tournament featuring fan-organized teams, WNBA players, NBA G League players, NFL players, top female 2K players, and social media influencers.

The NBA2K series, published by Take-Two Interactive Software, is to professional basketball what EA’s Madden series is to pro football. The video game itself is the gold standard simulation that has the blessing of both the league and the players association. But beyond the title, the NBA 2K League itself is in many ways an even larger initiative. Founded in 2018, the e-sports league has 21 teams linked to counterparts in the NBA. Complete with player drafts, salaries, trades, and even expansion teams launching in China, it’s the real deal—and it’s even got official socks to prove it.

Generally, fans and e-sports athletes compete in multiplayer games, but currently sequestered NBA stars (including the Miami Heat’s Derrick Jones Jr. and Phoenix Suns’ Devin Booker) are in the midst of an NBA2K tournament being broadcast on ESPN2 and the ESPN app. (Kevin Durant lost in the first round.)

The players are competing for $100,000, which will go to the charity of their choice. The quarterfinal games will be held Thursday, April 9, from 7–11 p.m. ET.

Xbox controller as seen during week four of the NBA 2K League regular season on May 3, 2019, at the NBA 2K Studio in Long Island City, N.Y.
Michelle Farsi—NBAE/Getty Images

But it’s not just professional athletes that have embraced e-sports. Backyard ballers and pickup warriors also seem to be passing their love of the game off to digital alternatives.

Valve Software’s digital distribution service Steam has repeatedly been setting new records for users, most recently topping 24.5 million concurrents on April 5, shattering the old high of 23.4 million. Over the past 30 days, the service’s average daily peak has been 38% higher than the usage numbers from March 2019. Likewise, traffic on Amazon-owned game-streaming service Twitch jumped from 982 million hours in February 2020 to more than 1.1 billion hours in March.

Some experts think that even after the coronavirus pandemic has passed, interest in e-sports will remain. The question is, how much?

“It’s sort of a litmus test,” says Hickey. “Obviously, you have more demand now than you would in a normalized environment, but people are watching, and they like it.”

Doron Nir, CEO of live-streaming tools and services provider StreamElements, expects the audience to stick around. “While this 20% growth has gotten a huge boost from stay-at-home mandates…we expect the medium to maintain some of this new momentum beyond the current crisis,” he says.

And historically speaking, where sports go, gambling inevitably follows. The State of Nevada, two weeks ago, gave the green light for operators to take bets on matches of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO). Prior to that decision, e-sports gambling had only been allowed for specific events, not for an entire league. Now, lacking alternatives, Las Vegas is literally betting on e-sports’ success.

And as more eyes have turned to e-sports, sponsors have begun taking them as seriously as the majors. Just ask NASCAR’s Bubba Wallace, who lost a sponsor after rage-quitting last weekend’s iRacing event following a wreck with Clint Bowyer. “I ruined so many peoples [sic] day by quiting [sic]..a video game.. Bahaha. A video game. Damn quarantine life is rough,” the second-place finisher in the Daytona 500 said in an emoji-laced tweet.

“GTK [good to know] where you stand,” replied a tweet from pain-relief cream Blue-Emu’s account. “Bye bye Bubba. We’re interested in drivers, not quitters.”

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