The emergence of esports and the colossal audiences that esports generate have had a profound effect on the way that sport is consumed all over the world. Indeed, the mainstream world of sport is increasingly crossing over into the growing, worldwide market for gaming. It is fair to suggest that certain sports fans will never be fully engaged with the idea of watching someone else play a game, yet scepticism to novel ideas in sport has, and will always, exist. Cricketing purists may well stay well clear of The Hundred franchise that is coming to Britain next year, yet that is not to say that there is both a space and a market for the idea. Engaging with younger audiences clearly has long-term benefits.

There was perhaps a suggestion that the return of competitive sport following the pandemic would have led to a subsequent dwindling of those consuming esports. Many were seen as substitutes that served a purpose for the time. Nevertheless, esports have taken several strides throughout the tumultuous year of 2020. No longer are they restricted to the more traditional gaming audiences; the pandemic has pushed pushed creators, broadcasters and consumers to think differently about how they can continue to enjoy sport.

The v10 R-League is a great example of this shift. Devised by esports media business Gfinity, in partnership with Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management, the inaugural season concluded this month. It has directly challenged the status quo of sporting audiences, attempting to collate gaming audiences with traditional sporting fanbases. Firstly, the realism of the game plays a part in encouraging motorsport fans to try out this innovative new format. Secondly, by securing BT Sport as the official broadcaster for the UK, the Global Racing Series was able to steer away from just the online viewership that would normally represent the sole consumers of a product such as this.

Simon Green, head of BT Sport, said: “Lockdown demonstrated a huge appetite for virtual motorsport, and we are delighted to expand our innovative work with Gfinity to bring this exciting new sim racing format to UK fans exclusively to BT Sport subscribers on Mondays and free to all online the next morning.” Whether or not such a series would be welcomed onto mainstream media services without the context of a pandemic is difficult to say. Yet the growth of the esports space is unquestionable.

Despite the continued growth, esports revenue itself has not avoided the misgivings of 2020. The major shift in viewership of esports in the last two years has been the emergence of live events. Fans purchasing tickets to attend competitions has put esports into the mainstream. The ongoing impact of Covid-19 means the global esports market is set to take a further hit to its 2020 revenues, according to Newzoo. The market researcher’s Global Esports Market Report initially estimated the competitive gaming industry would generate US$1.1 billion this year, but that figure has now been updated to US$950.3 million.

For many people, there is no substitute for attending live sporting events. Yet the growth of online viewing has shown how the consumption of sport is evolving; the pandemic has perhaps accelerated an already shifting movement. Such a shift is not confined to esports alone. Last season, the Premier League dabbled with streaming through their Amazon Prime channels.

In Europe at least, fans are beginning to return to live sporting events. 11,000 were present at Borussia Dortmund’s game against Freiburg at the start of October. Conflicts about how games are viewed in the absence of full stadiums have arisen, with many supporters less than enthusiastic about the news that non televised Premier League games would be available for £14.95. In that sense, the return of fans to English football could not come any sooner. With reports that fewer than 100 people bought the less than enthralling 0-0 draw between West Brom and Burnley, it is clear that the current pay-per-view model is not appealing to the traditional football audience.

The crossover between sport and gaming is not straightforward. Many that consume one will stay well clear of the other. However, the continued growth of esports is slowly shifting the industry closer into a more ‘public’ domain. The more esports that is shown on television, the easier the bridge will be to gap. The lack of competitive sport during the pandemic undoubtedly served to hasten that process. Moreover, the viewership and the models that are implemented in esports will likely continue to have an effect on the way mainstream sport is shown in the absence of paying live audiences. Current pay-per-view models for the Premier League, for example, seem obsolete. Whether it is through online streaming services, the consumption of all sport, may well continue to change.