How traditional sports can learn from esports


In just a decade, esports has involved from an underground pastime to a billion-dollar industry. One thing that has facilitated this growth is the industry’s ability to attract enormous numbers of viewers: over 496 million people online and in-person watch esports worldwide. In fact, eSports viewing figures are often higher than those of their traditional counterparts; the 2016 League of Legends final had 43 million viewers, while the NBA finals that year had 31 million.

The rise of esports has typically been seen as a threat to the traditional sports industry. Esports engages a wider, younger and more global audience, who respond to the level of engagement that it offers compared to traditional sports. However, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that there are many creative ways that fans can get involved with their teams, without needing to be in a stadium or watching a live game, and rather than feel threatened by esports’ level of fan engagement, traditional sports can adapt and learn from them.

Perhaps the best example of traditional sports taking a lesson from esports is amongst football teams. Even before the pandemic hit, a number of prominent teams have been working to broaden their offerings and create innovative ways for fans to engage digitally. For instance, a number of teams, such as Dynamo Kyiv and FC Barcelona, have been investing in blockchain-based fan tokens. These tokens can be purchased by fans, or earned when they complete ‘social actions’, such as playing prediction games or engaging with the club on social media. They can then be exchanged for exclusive fan rewards, such as early access to merchandise releases or VIP events. Fan tokens have proven extremely popular with fans even before Covid-19; FC Barcelona’s first round fan tokens sold out in under two hours, at a value of $1.3 million. Solutions like this not only engage fans, but also allow traditional teams to compete with eSports by tapping into a larger and more global fanbase, even when game attendance resumes.

Digital collectibles, such as digital trading cards are another great way for clubs to add to their fan offerings. Like fan tokens, these can be purchased by fans, unlocking profitable revenue streams for struggling teams. Trading cards let fans connect with each other, but digital trading cards and the associated applications allow fans from all over the world to easily trade cards with each other, building a more connected global fanbase. Similarly, sports teams can use unique digital collectibles, like the NBA’s digital collectibles, as an inventive new way to engage younger fans while simultaneously increasing revenue. What’s more, these digital trading cards are underpinned by innovative blockchain technology, ensuring that the collectibles cannot be destroyed, replicated or forged like physical ones can, making them a better investment and more attractive for fans. For teams, digital collectibles unlock a new revenue stream for the club, as well as a new way for fans to interact digitally.

Another exciting way that traditional sports teams can learn from esports is by implementing technologies to make remote global audiences feel more engaged in live games. When watching at home, fans might feel disconnected from the action, but clubs can use virtual reality technology to include fans more, such as by creating ‘cheer’ buttons that allow fans watching from home to participate more actively in games. This kind of participation is common in eSports, especially on streaming platforms. Traditional sports can harness this technology to improve viewership to compete with the eSports industry, as well to further engage remote fans all over the world.

Rather than feeling threatened by the rise of eSports, the teams who thrive most will be those who learn from its successes. This is already happening; Manchester City, among other clubs, have dipped their toes in the water by launching their own esports team. 2021 could be the year that we see clubs taking it further. Investment in digital transformation and creativity around fan engagement will not only allow clubs to survive reduced game attendance in 2021, but also earn the participation of younger fans, diversify revenues and successfully engage and monetize international fanbases.

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