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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

How eSports is weathering the covid-led shift to online mode

Gaming tournaments have become massive money spinners, generating revenues in billions

Sabyasachi Bose, a professional gamer and member of Global eSports is adjusting to a new reality brought on by the ongoing covid-19 pandemic. Instead of facing opponents in an indoor stadium bustling with fans and monitored by referees, he is competing against them in an online-only version of eSports, where everyone from organisers to teams participate and interact remotely.

All major eSports events, including PUBG Mobile World League, Overwatch League, ESL Pro League, have switched to online-only mode. PC maker Asus’ gaming division, Asus ROG (Republic of Gamers) India is also holding an e-Gaming Tournament called ROG Showdown with Counter Strike: Global Offensive .

“As professional players, we definitely miss the crowd and stage that we would get in offline tournaments. This is a different experience and sometimes even when we are playing in tournaments, it feels like a normal game," said Bose.

Bose and his team members are communicating with each other through TeamSpeak or Discord.

“Coaches are watching the game as we play. After the matches, we discuss the games. Sometimes a coach would play videos of our games on Discord and point out areas where we need to work on," added Bose.

Gaming tournaments have become big money spinners in recent times, generating revenue through endorsements, broadcast/streaming and ticket sales. However, due to the ongoing crisis, the industry will see a bit of a setback. The global eSports market is expected to generate $1.05 billion in revenue 2020 now, down from the earlier estimated figure of 1.1 billion, according to a revised April report by Newzoo, an eSports analytics and market research firm.

This revision is due to the temporary stoppage of offline activities and transition to online only events. Revenue from merchandise and ticket sales is expected to fall from $121.7 million to $106.5 million.

“After mass gathering and events were banned, organizers lost big money invested in offline events. The organizers also had to return ticket money to viewers and refund participating teams. Managing the fans’ emotion was an even bigger challenge," said Leon Yu, regional director of Asus India and South Asia, System Business Group.

The only silver lining is the eSports streaming revenues, which is expected to grow. Streaming revenues for e-sports teams will increase from $18.2 million to $19.9 million in 2020, as per the Newzoo report cited above.

“The online viewership has skyrocketed, the PMPL (PUBG Mobile Pro League) South Asia Scrims, for instance, is easily touching more than one million viewers every day. We optimized our resources to get the broadcast of the scrims going," said Akshat Rathee, managing director, Nodwin Gaming.

Scrims are online practice matches between teams, for e-sports. Nodwin is planning to monetize online tournaments through collaborations with Bollywood celebrities, cricketers and gaming influencers, to create engaging content. A campaign with gamer Naman Mathur, who goes by MortaL, and Tiger Shroff for Call of Duty Mobile (COD Mobile) is already underway.

Unlike an offline event, enforcing fair play can be a big challenge in online eSports tournaments. As players join matches remotely, regulating through physical referees is no longer viable. That is where many tournament organizers are testing new ways to regulate matches. For instance, organisers of the League of Legends European Championship are trying out screen recording, voice monitoring and remote control over the gamer’s computer.

“Any professional tournament has chances of unfair play being involved, regardless of whether it is offline or online. Most of the games have an anti-cheating mechanism built into the game, which does stall the player from engaging in malpractice," said Yu.

On the same note, Riot Games has developed a new anti-cheat engine for Valorant, a popular new multi-player game. Using server authority, the gaming company will prevent players from using speed hacks (which allows players to move faster than others) or wallhacks (when players can see opponents through walls). Very soon, it will be able to tackle hacks such as aim locks and trigger bots too.

In terms of logistics, organizing an eSports tournament is not the biggest challenge. Nodwin Gaming’s Rathee said logistics in an online format are completely different and much easier to operate.

However, for the online broadcast, companies need to make sure that the producers, technical directors and observers have stable internet connections. Latency can be a problem in online games, but it can be resolved by deploying low latency video streaming solutions.

“Within the media industry, e-sports is already leading the way in leveraging cloud-based, virtualized, live-production workflows to host competitions between players in different locations," said Dhaval Ponda, global head, media and entertainment services, Tata Communications.

Oliver Jones, co-founder and director, Bombay Play, a game development firm, said the problem of bringing teams together online has already been solved and should not pose any new challenge in terms of logistics. With this new format, the real risk that eSports is facing is of legitimacy of the sport itself.

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