The biggest competition in sports is happening off the field. Traditional sports like football, basketball, baseball, and hockey are feeling the heat from esports as competitive gaming grows at a blazing pace. The major leagues are looking at the expanding popularity of competitive gaming and are going green with envy. It is not just the fast-paced growth of esports that is fueling their jealousy, the leagues also covet the fans of competitive gaming too. The next generation of sports fans are flocking to esports tournaments and shunning the courts, fields, and rinks of the NBA, NFL, and NHL. The 2022 League of Legends World Championship drew 5.1 million viewers at its peak, all of them in the coveted key demographic.
The commissioners and team owners of all the major sports are trying to reach out to esports fans in a bid to secure viewing figures for the Super Bowls and World Series of the next decade. What is the solution? Well, if you can’t beat them, you should join them. Better yet, you should get them to join you.
Super Bowl Synergy
If there is one established sport that has embraced competitive gaming and its players and its fans, it is pro football. The NFL saw the writing on the wall early and began engaging in deals and cross-over events for the Super Bowl and NFL games in 2021. The theory is that if they can engage with esports fans on their own turf, they will follow them back to the ball games. In this respect, the NFL has been ahead of the game, with the NBA, MLB, and NHL lagging behind in esports engagement.
The Super Bowl is one of American sports crown jewels, and its glitter and sparkle are the perfect bait to hook the fans of esports and reel them into pro leagues. Last year, the NFL engaged in crossover events with the popular and dominant esports team FaZe Clan. In the lead-up to Super Bowl LVI, they hosted various events with the esports stars, including a crossover flag football game.
Super Bowl LVII is going to be a huge game and a test of the NFL’s esports crossover strategy. It’s still anyone’s guess who will be playing at State Farm Stadium in February, and even the sportsbooks are torn between various options. Take a look at the spread on this year’s Super Bowl and you can see that this competition is still wide open. The runup to the Super Bowl is going to feature some fierce games as teams scramble to secure a place in the final. Whoever lifts the Vince Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season will have a whole host of new fans from esports watching them online if the NFL’s plan works.
The stars of esports are more than athletes, they are influencers. The National Football League is banking on their influence to get the next generation of fans into the game. The plan seemed to work last year when online viewer numbers hit 11.2 million. The half-time show by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg probably helped out too.
The NBA Shoots Its Shot
Following the example set by the NFL, the National Basketball League is getting in on the action and trying to grab its share of the esports audience. Big stars and big sneakers used to bring in the fans back in the day, but to ensure a growing viewership the NBA must level up its esports engagement. The NBA does have an advantage in this area, and they are leveraging it to crank up the numbers.
NBA video games have been one of the industry’s most popular genres since the days of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The NBA 2K series of games has sold 130 million units over the past few years, and most gamers have a copy from one season or another in their collection. The 2023 version is set to sell a record number of units. Linking up with gamers and esports makes a lot of sense for the NBA.
They established an online NBA 2K league with the game’s developers Take-Two Interactive and got the teams to represent themselves in the esports league, helping to generate online interest. The strategy is working, hitting an average of 1.6 million online views per game in the 2021/22 season with the numbers trending up. Live NBA games also stream in VR, and fans can interact with each other during the game. This is slowly becoming more popular as gamers embrace VR tech and it becomes more mainstream.
MLB, NHL, And NASCAR Faceoff With Esports
Football and basketball have taken the lead in esports engagement, and other sports have taken notice. Across the board, professional sports have been struggling to find new fans and grow their consumer base. The advances the NFL and NBA have made in the esports space have blazed a trail for the other sports to follow. Baseball and hockey in particular have made moves to increase their exposure to online viewers and esports fans.
MLB The Show Players League launched online in 2020 in a partnership between the league and Sony. Big hitters from each team compete online in a 29-game regular season of three-inning online games, and the top eight players progress into a post-season that ends with a five-game World Series. It has been popular with online viewers on the league’s YouTube and Twitch channels and has upped the follower counts of the player’s social media profiles.
The NHL has taken a leaf from the NBA’s book. They are putting their licensed videogame at the center of their outreach into esports in a bid to turn gamers into viewers. The NHL recently announced a rebranding and expansion of their esports efforts by going into a partnership with games developer EA Sports and starting an online league. They are creating more esports hockey content than they ever have before, with participation from all 32 teams and streaming NHL esports competitions on their Twitch channel.
NASCAR has begun to embrace esports too. This is a smart move as racing is popular with gamers, with iRacing and VR racing being two of online gaming’s most popular and profitable genres. NASCAR’s esports league offers live streaming of races, and their Heat Pro League gives gamers the chance to compete as virtual racers for real-life teams and a $200,000 prize pot.
The growth in interest has been slow, but steady, and their online leagues allow international fans to engage with the sport and its stars. NASCAR fills huge stadiums with hundreds of thousands of fans on race day, but TV and online viewership has always had small numbers. Perhaps esports engagement can turn that around.
The approach of pro sports is making esports a partner, rather than a competitor. There are massive opportunities for all professional sports leagues to swell their fanbases and increase revenue with esports engagement.
Their efforts are slowly snowballing into better online and TV viewing figures, but it has not been the avalanche they hoped for. If the big sports are going to make more headway into the esports space they should put their online initiatives in the hands of the esports influencers instead, and meet gamers on their own terms.