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April 1, 2020, 4:13 p.m. EDT

Game on: Esports has filled the void of empty stadiums and arenas

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By Jon Swartz


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Esports has been filling a void among sports-deprived fans, especially younger gamers.

A sports-free landscape has forced many fans to watch and re-watch highlights from classic Super Bowls and World Series on cable sports channels. It’s prompted some to revisit board games like Strat-O-Matic to simulate unplayed games. And it’s prompted others to look for an alternative.

After several years of unfulfilled promise, esports may finally have its moment.

In the past two months, it has filled the void and then some. Viewership on Twitch, the go-to site for game streamers, has escalated from 1.18 million average concurrent viewers in December to 1.41 million in February and 1.64 million in March, according to TwitchTracker . The total is expected to top 2 million in April.

Steam, a videogame digital-distribution service from Valve Corp., reached an all-time player peak of more than 20 million over the March 13-14, the latest dates for which data is available.

“When there’s a major esport tournament every few months, there is interest in that game,” Brad Tenenholtz, CEO of Corporate Esports Association, which has organized a league of 180 companies including General Motors Co. /zigman2/quotes/205226835/composite GM +4.10%  and Target Corp. /zigman2/quotes/207799045/composite TGT -2.32%  whose 4,000 employees compete for charities. “We’re seeing that level of interest every week. Every day you think is the spike, and it keeps growing.”

The keen level of interest is underscored by rescheduled matches: Pre-coronavirus, it was 40% to 60% a week. Last week, it was 6%.

If that doesn’t make you drop your mouse or joystick, then chew on this: Verizon Communications Inc. /zigman2/quotes/204980236/composite VZ -2.79%  reported a 75% surge on its gaming network the week of March 10-17. Google’s YouTube Gaming saw a 15% gain. And Amazon’s Twitch, which operates a live-streaming video platform popular with gamers, has seen traffic increase 10% in the past few days, says Doron Nir, CEO of StreamElements, a provider of tools and services to the industry. (Amazon paid $970 million for Twitch Interactive in August 2014.)

There aren’t just more gamers -- they’re playing longer. The average U.S. gamer has played consecutively for 5 hours and 8 minutes, according to Limelight Networks Inc.’s /zigman2/quotes/202462366/composite LLNW +3.24%   2020 State of Online Gaming report .

“We’ve streamed about 10 million hours this month so far on GeForce [Now, the brand used by Nvidia for its cloud-gaming service],” Jeff Fisher, senior vice president of gaming at Nvidia, said in a March 24 investor meeting call. “Now we’ve added 1.5 million users since we launched officially the service out of beta in February. And you’re right, we see GeForce now as really incremental adding to our TAM [total addressable market].”

It all adds up to a projected 16% spike in global esports revenue this year to $1.1 billion in 2020, from $950.6 million in 2019, according to market researcher Newszoo . Some projections estimate a $3 billion market by 2023.

With leagues scattered across the globe pulling in millions of young viewers who are closely following the exploits of gaming “pros” such as Xu “Guxue” Qiulin and Kim “SLIME” Sung-jun, this relatively new sport of approximately 2.3 billion gamers has increasingly grabbed the attention of corporations betting on professional and amateur leagues. Among the corporate backers: Amazon.com Inc. /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN +1.17%  , Comcast Corp. /zigman2/quotes/209472081/composite CMCSA +1.46%  , Nike Inc. /zigman2/quotes/203439053/composite NKE +0.97%  , Mastercard Inc. /zigman2/quotes/207581792/composite MA +0.17%  , Intel Corp. /zigman2/quotes/203649727/composite INTC -1.70%  , and Nvidia Corp. /zigman2/quotes/200467500/composite NVDA -0.78%  .

Digital platforms such as Amazon’s Twitch, Alphabet’s Inc. /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL +0.09%   /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG +0.20%  YouTube and Facebook Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +3.03%  , and traditional outlets like Walt Disney Co.’s /zigman2/quotes/203410047/composite DIS +1.25%   ESPN, and AT&T Inc. /zigman2/quotes/203165245/composite T +0.23%   have streaming deals.

Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. /zigman2/quotes/204008930/composite TTWO +0.04%  had no comment. Electronic Arts Inc. /zigman2/quotes/206954087/composite EA -0.08%  did not respond to an email message seeking comment.

Esports “is benefiting from a large fan base’s ability to play the same game, in an immersive environment,” Ari Segal, CEO of Immortals Gaming Club, which owns the Los Angeles Valiant, a member of the Overwatch League, told MarketWatch in a phone interview. “This isn’t like passively watching football on TV.”

Logitech International /zigman2/quotes/204321690/composite LOGI -0.22%  CEO Bracken Darrell, whose peripherals company has benefited from strong gaming-related sales, boldly predicts esports leagues will eventually outdraw the four major professional sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL).

“It’s just another slice of your entertainment activity” for the younger demographic and cord-cutters, Ann Hand, co-founder and CEO of Super League Gaming Inc. /zigman2/quotes/202401484/composite SLGG +5.00%  , told MarketWatch over the phone. Her organization for amateur gamers, played by hundreds of thousands of people, calls itself the “Little League and minor leagues” for the market.

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Jon Swartz is a senior reporter for MarketWatch in San Francisco, covering many of the biggest players in tech, including Netflix, Facebook and Google. Jon has covered technology for more than 20 years, and previously worked for Barron's and USA Today. Follow him on Twitter @jswartz.

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