Like most sports enthusiasts, innovators, creators, and entrepreneurs, I've been spending much time on the internet trying to understand the future of the sports business world and how the current pandemic is going to affect the sports economy, the behaviors, trends, and the consumer buying patterns. After educating myself, I've no doubt and fully convinced that the "esports" is going to rule the world in the years to come. There's a ton of information available on the internet showing how big the esports world is with data, facts, and figures. So I'm not going there. But what stood out for me is the sheer volume of fan engagement, prize money of the competition, sponsorship interest, and advertisers pumping money into the system as a part of brand activation. Reports and research studies show that the esports leagues are further ahead than the traditional sports leagues, the likes of NFL, NBA, MLS, EPL, MLB, and among the others. Right from stadium attendance(gate monies) to viewership(in-stadium) to merchandising and licensing, every revenue generation department for esports far exceeds that of traditional sports.
The only place that the current esports industry lacks is the broadcasting and televising of live games on our go-to sports channels and OTT platforms.
The broadcasting and media rights make up the bulk of the revenue generation for any traditional sports leagues across the world. These TV deals take traditional live sports to every household across the globe. Today a hard-core gamer or an esports fan would watch a virtual video game live on TV, but not traditional sports fans. But it'll not be the same again. We'll all live in a world where we'll not only watch humans play in the virtual world but computers playing in the same world too. These esports live games will be telecasted across primary content consuming media platforms and screens of the day, and real humans like all of us will watch it and root for our favorite team. It's alien for us to watch a live video game today with no real-life connection to humans associated with the game, but that's going to change. When that happens, esports will be the number one sports entertainment industry in the world. Traditional sports will still have a place of its own, passionate cricket fans like us will again go to the stadiums to watch the Virat Kohlis of the day, but it'll be a rarity. Maybe not in the immediate future of 5–10 years, but definitely in the 10–20 years window. The Corona pandemic is going to change the way we interact with sports entertainment from here on.
Esports is not happening now because of the Corona pandemic, esports has already happened, and it’s now hogging limelight because of the Corona pandemic. And it’s just a start; there’s more to be uncovered in the days to come.
ESPORTS LEAGUES OF THE PROFESSIONAL SPORTS
Having observed these developments and aware of the changing entertainment landscape in the sports world, the major league sports of the current world, like American Football, Soccer, Basketball, Hockey, Baseball, have begun investing in the esports businesses of their original and traditional sport. Today the esports of the conventional game are an extension of the fan engagement strategy. It's already a well known and well-established fact that fantasy sports are connecting sports fans to the real competition. But esports is even more significant. We'll soon have the fantasy sports for the esports of the traditional game. As confusing as it sounds, fortunately, or unfortunately, that's the world we are going to live soon. The NFL, NBA, MLB, FIFA amongst the others have taken the initiative to invest and officially license the development of the esports variant of their respective sports. Some full-fledged competitions and tournaments happen all-round the year in an attempt to retain the fan engagement and expand the fan base in dedicated newer esports markets. But what's interesting now is the fact that these major league sports are beginning to televise the esports as prime-time television shows on regional sports networks in the absence of real games because of the corona pandemic. The televising of esports was earlier limited, but now the competition has expanded, and so as the air coverage across various content consumption media platforms. Some esports competitions have already started, and some yet to start in place of the traditional regular-season games. The fans in the western world are excited to see their favorite sport back live on TV even if it means the video game version of it.
What’s also interesting is the fact that the downloads and purchases of the esports have increased. The common fans are taking matters into their control. Fans with no prior gaming interest are buying and playing the video-games unable to survive with no live-action of their favorite sport. That’s the beauty of esports and power of technology combined, it can influence and convert average sports fans to hardcore esports fans.
ESPORTS — AS REAL AS IT CAN GET
Today's video game graphics, the renderings, and the flow of the computer-generated animation are of such high quality that's it's very similar to the live-action of the traditional sport. That's the key here to make the esports as close and realistic as possible to the conventional game, so it feels 'real and natural,' and not anime-like and plastic. I'm sure there'll come a time when it'll be almost impossible to differentiate between the esports and the real sports of the same traditional game.
The VFX and the studios of the future world could replace the stadiums. We’ll see real players acting in green rooms putting up their best possible show, executing their talent, showing-off skill, and finesse. In the future, real athletes will not only be recruited based on their game talent but for their abilities to enact on big screens professionally. It’s going to be some more time till we see jam-packed stadiums with sports fans, at least it’ll not be the same. So till then, sports fans have to settle for they get, and athletes might also want to consider adding more to their competences in completing their portfolios.
As exciting as it sounds, the development of these esports and engaging fans remotely comes with its own set of challenges. There are limitations and downsides to everything we do in life. The new technological advancements will have its fair share of criticisms because we are talking about substantial cultural shifts in consumer behaviors and the adaptability. That's the nature of innovation; there's going to be friction for most new things in the market until it becomes the norm. Let's put it this way — There's life risk associated with real professional sports, so is with e-sports. So I guess it should be OK with the human's ultimate gift to adapt to changes.
ESPORTS: STILL NOT CRICKET'S FAVORITE
Despite all the education, considerations, and preparedness for the future of sports, one thing that stood out for an avid cricket fan was cricket and its esports. Cricket, sports business known for having the world's second most popular sports entertainment product next only to soccer, doesn't have a dedicated esports league of its own. Honestly, it's a bit of a shocker and unfathomable. As a true cricket fan, and a passionate semi-pro cricketer, I just felt let down for a simple reason cricket doesn't have an alternative product in the form of esports to engage its millions and millions of fans across the world. I respect the business of cricket a lot. Mainly because of the way the sport has grown over the years competing with the leagues of the west. It's a vast national economy driver in most parts of the world. So I did my research to find out the truth behind the non-existence of an officially ICC licensed esports of cricket. It's not difficult to figure out that back in the day, there was an engagement with ICC and EA Sports. And the EA Sports cricket video games were quite popular in the early 2000s. We have all played at some point in our lives. But something happened after that, and we all just lost interest in a PC based cricket video game until the latest developments with Don Bradman and Ashes Cricket video games. EA Sports, the video-game company best known for developing high-quality video games in the history of sports for soccer, American football, basketball, and among others, officially backed out of the project with ICC because of piracy, copyright, and licensing issues. And yes, of course, the majority of the cricket fan following which comes from the Indian subcontinent was just too young and naive to understand the importance of esports in the early days. They all wanted to play without having to pay for it. EA Sports didn't find the market opportunity appealing and shifted focus on their best bet with FIFA and other traditional sports where the fans would buy their PC video games. It's understandable and very reasonable, but maybe not be-all and end-all.
Today 'FIFA 20' is most played esports of a traditional sport. It's not because EA Sports couldn't make cricket esports as big as FIFA 20, but they just didn't want to. There have been multiple attempts by other video gaming companies to develop a dedicated cricket video game of highest quality that meets the standards set by 'FIFA 20'. But unfortunately, they've all failed. But the only cricket organization that leads the way with technological innovations in cricket and often sets the benchmark with its unique initiatives is Cricket Australia(CA). CA understood the potential of esports business of the original sport and worked with Big Ant Studios in Australia to develop a dedicated cricket video game hoping that organizations would come on-board. 'Cricket 19' is officially licensed by Cricket Australia and backed by England Cricket Board(ECB) as well. Also, an Indian company, Nautilus Mobile, has made inroads in developing mobile-based video-game for cricket called REAL CRICKET(RC Cricket). It has over 50 million downloads with minimal or almost no support from the official cricket boards and organizations. RC Cricket is the only reasonable success story in comparison with FIFA 20 video-games of the world.
But the fact of the matter is that there’s a scattered population of cricket esports players with no dedicated esports cricket league backed by the boards, organizations, associations and its players. While other major league sports businesses are bullish on esports, cricket is yet to rise to the occasion. Cricket business might already be in advanced conversations with some large gaming companies to develop the futuristic cricket video games. Still, it’s disapppointing that we don’t have one today when we all needed it the most. Something is always better than nothing. Imagine a cricket e-sports IPL at its peak played by some of the best gamers of the cricket world and televised with live commentary on national televisions backed by the cricket players. We’d have all jumped on the bandwagon whether we liked it or not because we didn’t have too many choices either.
CRICKET'S BEST CHANCE WITH ESPORTS
With esports, the sky is the limit. Players could all be just housed in one dedicated "cricket esports studio" and still run the show without the logistical challenges of arranging the stadiums, security, ground maintenance, travel, technicians, and every supply-chain element for pulling off a real game. The only cost element would then be the technology. Even commentary teams could be remote, and every other department that could work remotely for which the cost associated becomes zero. Once the esports developed, the broadcasting partners could air an unlimited number of live games, thus leading to more revenue through advertising and in all other forms because the on-field branding could be universal as the playing field is virtual and simply change the logos. The growth possibilities for maximizing monetization opportunities through minimum resources are endless. We just have to get creative and take advantage of present-day technology.
If there's one significant take away from the whole corona pandemic episode for sports businesses is preparedness through technology. It's still possible to deliver the best quality sports entertainment product, engage sports fans, and even generate revenue to continue to be sustainable as a business model. If there's one area that's left unexplored for the cricket business is the esports. It is the future; let's not get it twisted and let there be no confusion. Maybe not the future of the next decade, but definitely after that. It's the right time to start investing in developing an officially licensed video game for cricket with an exclusive esports league for the same regulated by the cricketing boards and backed by the best cricketers.