eSports – From the Garage to the Arena

By Richard Löwenstein

eSports is one of the winners of the Corona crisis – at least when it comes to the part that takes place in the virtual world. But even without the crisis, it has developed from a niche phenomenon into a serious industry. Live tournaments fill big arenas and prize pools are huge. Companies like BMW and sports clubs like FC Bayern have recognized this trend and are now getting involved.

The announcement by the Bavarian soccer champions, FC Bayern Munich, in December 2019 seems like a turning point. “The soccer department has long resisted entering eSports. But in the end, the managers had to realize that this sector holds a lot of opportunities,” states Heiko Heidenreich. Heidenreich is a PhD student in the department of Sport Governance and Event Management at the University of Bayreuth, researching the topic of gaming and eSports.

FC Bayern Munich’s winning eSports players: (left to right): José Carlos Sánchez, Miguel Mestre, Alex Alguacil and coach Matthias Luttenberger. Photo: FC Bayern München

After much hesitation, FC Bayern abandoned its dismissive attitude and made its entry into eSports official - “but only for soccer simulation games”, as CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge emphasizes. Three eSports professionals — José Carlos Sánchez, Miguel Mestre and Alex Alguacil — are part of the squad and play for FC Bayern in the virtual league of “eFootball PES2020” from Japanese manufacturer Konami.

A Handful of Nerds

The integration of eSports into society is inevitable and only a matter of time, states Heidenreich. “I think that due to generational change and the increasingly positive attitude of the population towards digital hobbies and gaming, a new attitude will soon emerge.”

eSports is nothing new and reaches back to the mid-1990s. At that time, a few hundred gamers would gather in party rooms, set up and network their computers, and spend the whole night together conquering virtual game worlds. According to the German eSports association (ESBD), around three million Germans regularly compete online or in a LAN network today. In other words – they are e-athletes. We are no longer just talking about a hobby for a handful of nerds.

The Munich-based automobile manufacturer BMW has been involved in e-sports since 2019. The company organized its own racing series "SIM LIVE". A further SIM racing series as well as sustainable hardware are planned for the future.Photo: BMW

Gaming, Innovation, and Emotion

Today, many organizations engage in eSports with well-known companies sponsoring and promoting this industry. Things have changed. The basic values of gaming and eSports are increasingly recognized and there are fewer reservations.

“Our brand and eSports share similar values, such as emotion, innovation, pioneering spirit, and fascination,” states BMW’s spokesman Christopher Koenig. The Munich-based automobile manufacturer has been involved in eSports since 2019 and organizes virtual competitions as part of the “SIM LIVE” series. The idea is based on the analogue DTM and Formula E motorsport events as the Bavarian company likes to link virtual and real events. For example, they sent their factory drivers Bruno Spengler and Nick Catsburg to the event “SIM Racing EXPO” at the Nürburgring racetrack to let them compete against eSports professionals in a digital race.

eSports and Subscription TV

eSports is increasingly popular. Just as with athletic sports, it inspires millions of passive viewers. Since 2011, the US streaming service provider Twitch has been successful by broadcasting major eSports games live around the world. SPORT1 and are two Bavarian channels that have approached the matter in a more traditional way. They broadcast eSports competitions on traditional linear media channels for a target group that would otherwise subscribe to streaming services.

“We provide a complementary service to Twitch and YouTube; we don’t see ourselves as competitors. We make a difference through journalistic preparation which gives eSports high added value”, states SPORT1’s eSports expert Florian Merz. In 2016, the Ismaning-based company had already broadcast the Frankfurt eSports event “ESL One” live on broadcast TV. Since then, the channel has been increasingly involved. In January 2019, it launched eSPORTS1, a special interest subscription channel. Florian Merz is satisfied with its initial success. “We have up to 200,000 viewers. Our highlight was the victory of the German FIFA professional Mohammed Harkous at the FIFA 19 World Cup in August 2019.”

Broadcasts many eSports events on linear subscription TV. eSPORTS1 live at the “FIFA eWorld Cup Grand Final 2019” with the hosts Konni Winkler, Georg Raffelt and Gordon Lesser (left to right). Photo: eSPORTS1

Corona Boost for the eSports Industry?

Heiko Heidenreich explains that the Corona crisis has given eSports a huge boost, particularly in terms of the different media channels. “The ‘Bundesliga Home Challenge’, for example, was created during the crisis and can also be seen live on broadcast TV.

For Heidenreich, the gaming industry is the winner in this crisis. “The lockdown has had a negative impact on traditional sports, but gaming is an activity that can be pursued at home. This has led to an increased consumption of eSports products.” In the future we will see if the resulting opportunities will be taken advantage of not only in the short term but also in the long term.