Facing a global shut-down due to Covid-19, the multi-billion-pound sports industry is turning to virtual competitions to keep fans entertained and sponsors on board.

Video game licensing has long provided sports clubs, leagues, and players with additional revenue streams. But faced with no live physical sporting fixtures for at least the next few months, esports have now come into focus as a temporary saviour of the sports industry.

The Premier League, the world’s most valuable domestic football competition, is reportedly in talks with its clubs to launch an official epsorts tournament on the hugely popular Fifa 20 video game, and other football leagues around the world are having similar discussions. An official esports competition would allow the leagues to maintain their relationships with fans, offer broadcasters virtual action to fill their suddenly empty airtime, and convince sponsors that their adverts are still being seen by millions of eyeballs. Failure to agree a deal and get fan buy-in to the idea could cost the Premier League over £1.1bn and force smaller competitions into bankruptcy.

Other sports have already put esports contingency plans into motion. A Virtual Snooker World Championship is underway, with leading Snooker 19 gamers competing on behalf of the sports leading stars. The games games broadcast live on the World Snooker Tournament website, and despite some amused comments from snooker fans the response has been generally positive. Importantly for the tournament’s official sponsor, fans are also still choosing bet with Betfred on which players will progress through each round.

Formula 1 has taken a two-pronged approach to the shut-down, furloughing half its staff and cutting pay for executives whilst also holding virtual Grands Prix to replace every postponed event. Championship points are not up for grabs, but the shift to the virtual arena has opened the competition up to other “drivers”. Past F1 heroes are competing alongside current F1 drivers and sports stars from other disciplines. The Real Madrid and Belgian national football team goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, competed in the Chinese Virtual Grand Prix last weekend.

Earlier this month, more than 4.8 million people tuned in to watch the virtual Grand National on ITV. This figure was about half the record-breaking viewer number the 2019 Grand National, but marked the first time a national UK broadcaster televised a virtual sport.

Esports may not be able to recreate the sights, sounds, and feelings of live action sports, but sports bosses hope they will keep current fans entertained and could entice a new younger audience. The virtual sports industry was already expected to more than double in size between 2018 and 2023 to $1.8bn, but the coronavirus shut-down could be the catalyst to push finally epsorts into the mainstream.

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