It’s fair to say that while COVID-19 has and continues to disrupt traditional sporting events, the esports sector has thrived amidst the chaos. Esports is the organised competitive form of gaming and is the fastest-growing theme in the gaming sector. It has enjoyed phenomenal growth in the last decade, with some live events filling stadiums and attracting millions of viewers worldwide through various streaming platforms. Now, according to Verdict, Esports caters for almost 10% of the global online population of 4.5billion, a figure that has grown further in the first quarter of 2020.

With more and more people at home and with more time on their hands to access PCs and mobile devices, many have been taking an increasing interest in esports.

The lockdown has been really interesting for the esports industry as a whole, and particularly with regards to viewership and engagement

Explains Milly Preston, Head of Marketing at Excel Esports. Excel is a British esports team boasting a global presence and a number of high-profile partnerships. They have teams in competitive rosters across two esports, Fortnite and League of Legends.

Twitch, for example, has topped three billion hours watched in the first quarter of 2020, the highest number since the platform launched

Continues Milly. “Not only that, but Twitter announced a 70% increase in gaming discussion, and we’ve seen a constant month-on-month growth in engagement across our channels too. Brands and celebrities have been increasingly engaging with esports, and so there are a lot of new eyeballs on gaming as a whole.  The hope is that much of this new audience will commit to esports as long-term fans.

“The industry is massive but it’s not anywhere near its ceiling. Global esports revenues are about to hit £1.1b this year. The sports industry is worth around £500b a year. The wider gaming industry is worth around £200-£240b year, which shows there is still so much potential for esports to keep growing.”

And it’s part of Milly’s job to help esports grow, albeit specifically the Excel brand.

Excel compete at the highest level in League of Legends. Within the League of Legends are different territories, of which the LEC is the European championship and Excel are one of 10 teams competing for that title [the only one that has its roots in Britain]. The top four of the LEC compete in world tournaments, which are the events that take place in sold out stadiums.

In Fortnite, Excel have just signed with Jaden ‘Wolfiez’ Ashmen, dubbed ‘the millionaire schoolboy from Essex’ who won £1m in the Fortnite World Cup last year. As a British player, he aligns with the Excel brand well, and gives them a presence in Fortnite too.

My role is to understand and build the fanbase and the awareness of our brand and support commercial activation opportunities with our partners. Now, more than ever, particularly in this industry, content marketing and content creation is key

So, what makes good content when it comes to esports?

“Whereas when I worked for Leaders in Sport, where all the content was polished and professional, esports fans are not looking for perfection; they just want a close insight behind the scenes and more reactive content that’s raw and ready.”

But has it changed throughout the lockdown? Social media managers and content creators working in traditional sports have had to rip up their content calendars and adapt without the usual ebb and flow of live events, and instead they’ve come up with new and engaging ideas. Has it been the same for esports?

I think the biggest change during lockdown has been through activations and initiatives when it comes to communicating to an audience

Explains Milly. “Esports was built for the lockdown, so as an industry we were ready to go. The only thing that has changed negatively are the lack of events or production studios, but that’s how esports used to be. It used to come from bedrooms and so without the production element, it feels as though it’s gone back to its roots.

There have also been a number of esports initiatives which probably wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the global pandemic and subsequent worldwide lockdown.

“For example, there was YANA, which stands for You Are Not Alone, a campaign aimed at getting as many people involved in playing/watching a 12-hour stream. We got involved with it alongside with our partners BT, and it got us great exposure, but it was done for a good cause, too. Another initiative that might not have happened in ‘normal’ circumstances involved us teaming up with the other 12 teams in the LEC to take part in a community showdown event, which is where team communities take part against other team communities.”

Another general trend in esports, which arguably has been exacerbated during the pandemic has been the blurring of lines between traditional sports and esports. More and more brands associated in the activation of sponsorship around traditional sports are getting involved in esports, while more and more talent, like Milly, is moving across from the traditional sports world to esports.

I see those lines blurring more and more in the future

Explains Milly. “In terms of sponsorship opportunities and audience eyeballs, both esports and traditional sports are both competing for similar attention.

One area of esports that perhaps hasn’t grown as quickly as the rest of the sector is female representation at a participant level.

“The number of women competing is small,” explains Milly. “The top teams in the LEC, for example, they have no women. There are no rules saying women can’t play, but they just don’t. It’s not like in traditional sports, where based on performance aspects, men and women are supposed to play in different leagues and formats… esports is a level playing field, but so far no women have really come forward into the space, and I’m keen to understand why they don’t and how I/we can support the growth of women as competitors. Overall, the number of women who work in esports is similar to those who work in traditional sports in that we’re certainly outnumbered by men, but growing. Yet in terms of those who watch… that is a surprisingly high number: around 35% of esports viewers are female. That’s an amazing opportunity.”

Milly’s interest in female representation not only comes as a result of being a woman working in a largely male-dominated landscape, but also because she acts as vice chair of the Women in Esports Committee.

“It’s newly established and we’ve only had two board meetings, so we’re just finding our feet with how we can make an impact”. she explains.

Yet our aim is to give women the opportunities to participate in esports either by playing, or to get involved in the business side, and try and do what we can to improve inclusivity

“When speaking to women in the esports community, what comes across is that there has been an absence of female role models within the industry, particularly within team play. It’s a conversation we have here at Excel regularly. We have a scouting system that uses statistics, and if a female player was to come into that space we would absolutely give that person a shot at a professional level. But the bigger task is how we get women coming through at a grassroots level and how can we give them the same opportunities given to male players, and get them playing to the same standard?”

One thing is for sure, while esports does have room for improvement when it comes to female participation, the future of the sector is very bright indeed.

Expect to see it continue to grow, and an increasing number of talent jumping to the sector from traditional sports.