Games innovation is about more than realistic graphics and faster processors. When COVID-19 put the world on hold, the esports industry pivoted quickly. It has not just survived but thrived in a stressful and restrictive environment because esports stakeholders turned to innovative technologies.
The video game industry has traditionally been at the forefront of nascent technologies from the first personal computers to architecting the virtual worlds of the future. This tradition of games innovation continues today. It has been perfectly demonstrated during the global pandemic when other industries including traditional sports turn to the esports industry for inspiration.
Gaming to the Rescue
With the COVID-19 outbreak came uncertainty, isolation, and anxiety. As the world scrambled to cope and understand, many turned to video games as a source of comfort. Over 662 million people watched live game content during 2020, according to Newzoo’s Global Esports and Live Streaming Market Report. This represents an 11% jump from 2019.
Esports events that drew massive crowds had to move online and offer the same entertainment value, if not more, than in-person events. Games innovation suddenly pivoted from developing future technology to utilising emerging products and services that could broadcast esports tournaments to the world, and fast.
Remote production has become king.
Esports Innovation: All the Action, None of the Travel
Even before the pandemic, esports was leading the way in remote production by leveraging cloud-based, virtualised, live-production workflows. This allows event organisers to host competitions between players in different locations.
One such tool is easylive.io. Based out of France, this video and audio production system uses cloud computing to produce, edit, mix and distribute content to multiple digital outlets. This includes streaming services, social media networks, and linear-TV broadcasters.
Easylive.io is decentralised, so entire teams can access the streaming tech tools from anywhere in the world. This made the platform even more attractive as in-person esports events moved online, including the ESL Open tournament and NOVDIN Gaming, a PUBG Mobile team out of India.
“I think the first two months of the Covid had us working at full steam, seven days a week, non-stop,” CEO/co-founder Philippe Laurent told Esports BAR. “The demand exploded and it was tough. But we did not panic for fear of not being able to deliver.”
Another example of technology used to fuel games innovation is Montreal-based media provider Grass Valley. Electronic Arts will utilise the Grass Valley system (specifically its AMPP collection of tools) for the 2020-2021 FIFA World Cup qualifying tournaments. Grass Valley’s cloud-based workflow tools offer low latency with high frame rates.
“The project with EA is a fantastic example of how today’s workflows need to pivot rapidly — whether that’s to work around a global pandemic or to keep pace with diverse audience demands,” said Grass Valley’s CEO and President, Tim Shoulders.
Thanks to continued innovation in esports production workflows, virtual broadcasts drew massive audiences and sponsors. The 2020 League of Legends World Championships attracted 91.9 million hours of viewership between YouTube and Twitch.
The esports industry is seeing a gold rush for media rights. Newzoo predicts that global esports revenues will reach $1 billion in 2021, 75% of which originating from media rights and sponsorship.
Games Innovation, Informed
To continue the pursuit of games innovation, esports stakeholders are reliant on evolving information. Online tournaments and live broadcasts were nothing new before the pandemic shut everything down, but lockdowns forced organisers to rethink their engagement strategies.
With this change arose a demand for the most current data available. 2020 proved to be a busy year for data firms, who stepped up to help further games innovation for the present landscape and beyond.
The Global Esports Federation (GEF) partnered with Nielsen Sports in 2020 to “amplify the value” of its efforts going forward. British polling and data company YouGov upgraded its Global Fan Profiles tool so properties, sponsors and rights holders can track fan sentiment and attitudes in esports.
The idea of data informing games innovation is proving to be an attractive investment, too. Esports data platform GRID closed a $10m (~£7.28m) Series A funding round in April 2021, with NFL player JuJu Smith-Schuster among its investors.
Gaming is Innovating the Future
The pandemic has allowed the esports industry to shine not only in terms of viewership but opportunities for industries that struggled in lockdown.
When traditional sports clubs found themselves unable to play, they took a cue from its “little brother,” esports.
NBA team Pheonix Suns finished its pro basketball season by playing NBA 2K20 and broadcasting it on Twitch. Similarly, Monumental Sports Network and NBC Sports continued streaming sports in its digital form, including Washington Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals games through NBA 2K20 and NHL 20, respectively.
The esports industry has continued to innovate, as well and the future may very well include virtual reality.
ESL and Oculus teamed up to launch the VR League, which continued into 2020 and added a high school league.
Valve produces virtual reality units and also happens to publish Dota 2, one of the most popular esports titles in the world. Back in 2016, Valve added the Dota VR Hub, which allowed fans to watch every game in The International in three unique VR modes. This dropped VR users in a theatre surrounded by other fans, soaring above the map, or right on the map in the middle of the action at true scale.
It could be a while before VR esports hits the mainstream, but games innovation will continue to wow audiences in its own way.
“The innovations that we’re currently seeing in esports are not copy-and-paste ideas from other entertainment verticals,” Excel Esports CEO Wouter Sleijffers told Esports BAR. “They are endemic to what our ecosystem is and I think that is really important. Our ecosystem is developing in its own right and innovation is a big part of that.”