The COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out the spring seasons for professional sports and associated revenue for TV networks, but esports is filling part of that void.
Gaming companies behind titles licensed by each major league are the winners in this unexpected shift; Electronic Arts (EA) is first among them with FIFA, Madden NFL, NBA Live and NHL in its EA Sports portfolio and more than 100 esports events planned for 2020. The way EA, networks and sports leagues are responding to production challenges in this crisis will reshape the esports market going forward.
Millions of people sheltering in place has created a breakout opportunity for esports broadcasting:
In late March, 900,000 viewers tuned into Fox Sports for Nascar’s iRacing series, with 1.1 million watching in early April; the network has also broadcast Madden NFL tournaments with NFL commentators and athletes. ESPN is televising NBA players facing off against each other in NBA 2K (by Take-Two Interactive) and pro drivers (and other pro athletes like Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero) are racing each other in Codemasters’ F1 2019 game. ESPN has broadcast competitive play of non-sports games with League of Legends (by Riot Games) and Apex Legends (by EA) tournaments.
To be clear, ratings for these events have have varied widely, but networks and game companies are rethinking how esports is broadcast, which will advance its pop-culture appeal.
Esports is a massively popular activity with its own large piece of turf in pop culture, but it hasn’t secured a central role. Research firm Newzoo pegs the global audience of “esports enthusiasts” at 223 million. But unlike soccer and basketball, esports is siloed because it caters to viewers who are generally avid gamers. The action is extremely fast, so commentary by a streamer rarely helps outsiders understand what is going on enough to become engaged.
FaZe Clan, the esports mega-franchise worth more than $240 million, is still planning on moving forward with its international expansion this year on the heels of a multi-million-dollar funding round backed by investors including Jimmy Iovine and the startup shopping network, NTWRK.
Backed by Drake, Live Nation and Iovine, NTWRK is not just an investor in FaZe Clan, the startup will also be the home for the esports entertainment hub’s future merchandising efforts.
Part of the capital could go toward planned international expansion efforts, which would see FaZe Clan set up a global network of FaZe houses for its entertainers. Already a cornerstone of the culture that’s sprung up around online gaming and streaming entertainment, FaZe is doubling down on its production and distribution, according to chief executive Lee Trink.
While ad dollars and spending are plummeting across the entertainment world, demand for placement on FaZe Clan’s streams continues to grow, said Trink.
“We’re not experiencing that [decline] right now (not as far as our sponsorship and brand deals),” Trink said. “There’s been a massive constriction for that capital around advertising, but there’s been greater restriction around avenues to deploy that capital.”
Lee Trink, chief executive of FaZe Clan (Photo courtesy of FaZe Clan)
FaZe remains unfazed by those constraints because there’s no entertainment that’s more epidemic-proof than watching a bunch of folks play video games alone (or in a socially distant group) in a house. It’s the perfect entertainment for pandemic times.
TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon inked a deal with the FaZe Clan team to promote a tournament, and the company’s Fight 2 Fund raised money for organizations working to combat the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We’re one of the last shows in show-business that are still going on,” says Trink.
Trink’s statement is a simple fact. Interest in streaming is skyrocketing and even traditional celebrities are embracing the FaZe Clan’s work-from-home aesthetic (pioneered by the original YouTube streamers who paved the way for vlogging as entertainment).
The company’s roster of talent is showcased on the newly launched subscription service, Quibi, and has partnered with NTWRK to create promotions in the past.
And the company is still looking for new capital to fund its activities. On the heels of the Series A close, which Trink said happened in December and included a slew of celebrities on top of Iovine and NTWRK, the company will be going back out to market this year to raise another $10 million to $15 million.
Some of that cash would likely be used to fund the expansion that Trink says is a part of FaZe Clan’s future growth plans — despite the pandemic.
“We’re looking to do a lot of interesting moves regarding houses,” said Trink. “There are some exciting conversations going on around international expansion during this time. The chances of there being FaZe houses around the world is likely.”
Esports One is a startup betting that there’s a big opportunity in bringing a fantasy sports approach to the world of esports — particularly at a time when traditional pro sports are on pause.
Co-founder and COO Sharon Winter told me that the company’s platform, which is leaving beta testing today, is the first “all-in-one fantasy platform” for esports. In other words, it’s not just a site where you can create a fantasy team to compete with others, but also a place where you can research players, read articles about the latest news and watch live games.
And while Esports One is starting out by supporting the LCS (North American) and LEC (European) regions for League of Legends, the goal is to support a wide range of esports titles.
Co-founder and CEO Matt Gunnin said that when he started Esports One in 2017, the goal was to create “the first and only esports fantasy destination.” And while today’s launch is in many ways the realization of that vision, Esports One has been launching other data and analytics products in the meantime, becoming a data partner for both Acer’s Planet 9 esports platform and League of Legends publisher Riot Games.
Backed by Eniac Ventures and Xseed Capital,, the company was also part of the first class of startups to participate in the MIT Play Labs accelerator, and it says it uses computer vision technology developed at MIT and Caltech.
Why does an esports startup need that level of tech? Gunnin compared it to watching pro football on TV, where you can see a virtual yellow line indicating how far a team needs to advance to achieve first down.
“Imagine trying to watch a football game if there isn’t that yellow first-down line,” he said. “What we’ve been trying to build from the early days is the technology to be that first-down line for esports.”
Image Credits: Esports One
More specifically, Gunnin and Winter explained that their computer vision capabilities allow Esports One to track the activity in a game without having to rely on a game publisher’s company’s API — though Gunnin added that when an API is available, they’re happy to use it as “a central source of truth” to start training the company’s algorithms.
Gunnin added that the plan is to keep the basic Esports One platform free, then add premium subscription features over the summer.
“There could be various ways for users to get more insights, more analytics, more research tools, more ways to engage with one another,” he said. “We’re not going into gambling … Users don’t have to buy an advantage when they’re playing against anyone else, [we don’t want users to have an advantage] because they’re paying for monthly subscription access to stats. But we could take some of those stats and make it available in chart form, make it exportable.”
The company said that while in beta, the platform has already pulled in 30,000 active participants — and that’s without advertising spend.
And Gannin and Winter suggested that there’s an even bigger opportunity to expand the esports audience right now, as traditional fans have nothing to watch and even pro basketball players are turning to video games to compete.
“As people have been staying at home… we’re seeing DMs to our social media accounts from people diving into esports, signing up for Discord accounts,” Winter said. “We’ve ramped up the support to educate the community and expand the esports audience. It’s quickly surpassing mainstream, traditional sports.”