eSports: How Football Manager, FIFA 20 and virtual racing are helping sport stars during coronavirus lockdown

JOE KRISHNAN
YouTube/Tottenham Hotspur

Sport, as we know it, may never fully recover from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. But even in these difficult times, eSports is providing a beacon of hope that the damage can be repaired.

Fixtures have been cancelled and postponed and there remains a very strong possibility that league campaigns and tournaments will not be completed. The difficulty for players, clubs and businesses associated with sport to find a way to carry on with some sense of normality is palpable.

But if there is a silver lining that can emerge from the uncertainty the virus has caused, it is that eSports is finding a way to help those associated with sport soldier on by providing athletes and fans with a positive distraction.

The UK public have warned not to go outside by the government unless it is for something essential. And there is no exception for the thousands of footballers, tennis and rugby players, who have all become accustomed to a daily routine which is centred around playing sport - whether it is training, meeting with their team-mates or preparing for a match. With a void in their schedule now to fill, eSports is helping pass the time.

Specifically, Football Manager 2020, a computer-based simulation of life as a football manager on PC, has experienced an unprecedented surge in the number of gamers logging on.

Ryan Sessegnon and Michail Antonio played out Tottenham vs West Ham on FIFA 20 Photo: YouTube/Tottenham Hotspur

According to new research from Online Betting Guide (OLBG), Football Manager saw a record peak of 180,838 users online on Sunday, March 22. The previous record, set in February 2020, had seen 82,413 users playing the game concurrently - showing a huge increase of 119 per cent over the past 30 days.

And that's not all. In the midst of matches being postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, a staff member at League Two club Leyton Orient suggested the club should host a FIFA 20 tournament, titled 'UltimateQuaranteam', inviting other clubs to participate online. News of the competition spread across the planet with clubs such as AS Roma, Feyenoord and Red Bull Salzburg all throwing their names into the hat. In the space of a week, the tournament had expanded to 128 teams with outfits from Australia, USA and South Africa entering the fray.

Many expected eSports players to represent clubs but the inclusion of real-life footballers, including Andros Townsend and Todd Cantwell, was a welcome surprise. As much as it appeared to be for the benefit of fans, it was giving footballers who may have felt frustrated holed up in their homes something to keep them active.

This explosion of interest in eSports is providing a huge boost for the sport's reputation and Phelan Hill, a senior consultant for analytics company Nielsen Sports, says the rising engagement from people in their homes is providing a platform growth in the eSports industry.

"Esports has been identically afflicted by the current climate as the broader sport and entertainment sector, as rights holders react to government advice around travel and mass gatherings. Esports businesses, related contractors and fans are in the same boat as everyone else.

"However, it has been far easier for eSports to adapt, given the digital nature of its core offering to fans and commercial partners. Sports Leagues, competitions and teams will adjust much more quickly than people expect, with the ‘new normal’ being online competition played in front of huge audiences sitting at home.

"We are already seeing bigger audiences than usual because other entertainment options are not viable due to the pandemic. Famous sports stars, particularly in the United States, are raising acceptance levels of gaming and eSports through their own streaming. This represents a great opportunity for the eSports community to engage and retain new fans."

In the case of replacing live sport events, the big names in football have been providing the next best thing. West Ham's Michail Antonio and Tottenham's Ryan Sessegnon piqued the interest from not only Twitch enthusiasts but also new fans, by holding a one-off match between them to mark the postponed clash between the two clubs on Friday, March 20.

Marco Asensio won a FIFA 20 competition from the comfort of his home Twitter/@LaLigaEN

And there's a charitable aspect to playing online as well, with Real Madrid star Gareth Bale, who owns his own eSports team, helping organise a tournament called 'Combat Corona', with the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Luke Shaw, Mason Mount and Kieran Tierney also taking part. Proceeds raised from Combat Corona and the UltimateQuaranteam tournament will go towards helping emergency services and sporting institutions survive against Covid-19.

Esports has also handed a chance for forgotten stars such as Marco Asensio, who has been injured since the summer after rupturing his crucial ligament, the chance to propel themselves back into the limelight. The Spain international represented Real Madrid in LaLiga's charity FIFA 20 tournament and triumphed 4-2 in the final against Leganes, with a huge online crowd of over 170,000 people live-streaming the event.

Away from football, motorsport has been plunged into uncertainty with eight races postponed or cancelled and the 2020 season still yet to get underway. But drivers have found a way to put their skills in the drivers' seat to the test, with McLaren's Lando Norris racing alongside celebrities such as Sir Chris Hoy and singer Liam Payne in the virtual Bahrain Grand Prix, which was broadcast live on Sky Sports on Sunday, March 22.

McLaren driver Lando Norris took part in the F1 virtual Bahrain Grand Prix Photo: PA

The success of the event has led F1 bosses to consider replacing the live events with virtual races while the 2020 season is delayed. Indeed, Veloce Esports started this trend with the virtual Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix, bringing in some household names such as Norris, Max Verstappen and Thibaut Courtois from the world of football.

What this proves is that sport, as a whole, is finding a way to cope by accessing the virtual world - the next best thing. And with that, those associated with eSports can rest easy with the knowledge that after years of ridicule and unfair assumptions, they have convinced doubters that their sport is worth watching after all.

Phelan Hill is a Senior Consultant at Nielsen Sports, the global leader in sports industry analytics. For more information visit www.nielsensports.com

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