Esports offer a brave new world

Rest assured, the apocalypse will have video games. Not only has the Covid-19 crisis brought attention to their durability and ubiquity as a cultural force, but the medium has come to the rescue of its older, more respected cousin: sport.

These are difficult times in the sports world. On the one hand their irrelevance has never seemed so stark. Faced with an immediate danger to our collective health, there can be no credible argument to keep major competitions running as usual. Sure, some have been dragged off the pitch kicking and screaming, but we’ve reached a point where everybody that matters has agreed to put it all on ice until further notice.

On the other hand, there remains a huge pile of obligations that aren’t going anywhere. The vast majority of clubs, teams and associations are run like businesses. They are beholden to contracts, sponsors and commitments and face real-world consequences for not delivering on agreed-upon calendars.

Enter esports. In their own right, the world of esports has grown exponentially from its perception as a smattering of geeky hang-outs to global mass-watched extravaganzas with mega-riches on the line. And now they have evolved a step further — becoming a conduit for shuttered sports to maintain their sought-after relevance and offer their fans at least a semblance of the action they’re being deprived of. There’s some irony in that: the planet’s elite athletes now confined to the great equaliser of technology.

The initial experimentation with esports over the past few weeks has taken a few forms and produced varying results, from the lame to the surprisingly entertaining.

The most prominent, or at least that with the most attached prestige, was Formula 1’s staging of a virtual Bahrain Grand Prix last weekend via the F1 2019 computer game. With the season yet to actually get under way, the idea is to have one of these on every would-be race weekend with racers lining up at the digital grid instead.

As it turned out, not too many drivers were initially interested in the idea. Only Lando Norris and Nicholas Latifi took part – as a rookie, the latter has yet to actually take part in a real F1 race. Still, there was a fair amount of star power from various other realms to make things interesting. There was Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois in a Racing Point, golfer Ian Poulter in a Renault, Olympic cycling gold medallist Chris Hoy representing Red Bull while Mercedes could call on test drivers Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Gutiérrez.

The result was an entertaining skirmish and pleasant distraction from what’s happening outside; exactly what we’re missing from the absence of sport. There were crashes, sneaky overtakes with hilarious moments of absurdly bad play littered throughout. Glitches and bugs persisted, as you might expect for a quickly-organised maiden event, but by no means ruined the race. Ultimately, 20-year-old Renault test driver Guanyu Zhou emerged the first virtual Grand Prix winner.

An added dynamic worth mentioning is that a few of the drivers streamed the experience on Twitch. For the uninitiated, Twitch is essentially YouTube for gamers. It allows them to record themselves for users to watch live; in this instance one could see all of Courtois’s contorted expressions as his languid body attempted to control the steering wheel and pedals in front of him. This personal experience, where sports figures can engage directly with their supporters for hours, is a pleasant change from the whitewashed media-trained world they usually exist in.

Courtois’s colleagues in Spain, meanwhile, were taking part in something they’re far more familiar with: a football tournament. Organised by video game streamer Ibai Llanos and endorsed by La Liga itself, 18 of the league’s sides took part in a Fifa 20 knockout competition at the weekend. Each club was represented by one of their players, with Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio destroying his rivals to take first. Barcelona’s Sergi Roberto and Mallorca’s Alejandro Pozo were annoyingly blocked from taking part because the teams have sponsorship deals with rival game Pro Evolution Soccer – just like real football, the gaming world is not exempt from politicking.

Out for the entire real-life season so far with a serious knee injury, captain Asensio was the star on the virtual pitch as he grabbed a brace in the 4-2 win over Aitor Ruibal and Leganés in the final. (At this point Fifa aficionados are screaming for us to point out that using Madrid is a huge advantage in the game. With players to call on like Eden Hazard and Luka Modric, who also grabbed neat strikes in the match, that criticism is not unfounded.)

More than 170 000 people watched the final. Broadcast on TV and covered by the national media, it also raised €140 000 to go towards the battle against Covid-19.

There have also been smaller duels taking place in the world of Fifa, such as West Ham’s Michail Antonio and Tottenham’s Ryan Sessegnon squaring off in a London derby. Matches like these go beyond the action itself: they’re a chance for footballers to express their true braggadocious selves. Fifa brings out the delightful worst in people. Even N’Golo Kanté presumably would not be able to resist shoving his opponent’s face in the embarrassment of defeat.

Others have ignored this critical human factor in their efforts to bring back sports. England’s Football Association looked to compensate for the postponement of the FA Cup by “simulating” the quarter final fixtures. NBC, and other American media houses, did the same for the NBA. Simulating involves leaving the AI to bash it out amongst itself in the games and it is hard to describe just how boring that is. You’d be better off watching pigeons play ping-pong on YouTube before bothering to click on one of those streams.

Undoubtedly, organisers will quickly cotton on to what sport-deprived fans want to see and what they will happily ignore. The wonderful thing about the esports world is that imagination is the only limit. In what other reality could a footballer and golfer collide at 300km/h? There is boundless potential here, which we will hopefully see realised in the coming weeks.

There should be an extended list of willing participants, too. It would be hard to find a 20-something European footballer, for instance, who didn’t grow up playing these games. Long before this crisis, it had become part of both media marketing strategies to set up games with youngsters such as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Marcos Rashford, to name a few. Heck, you can even watch retired players like Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard give lengthy – and surprisingly in-depth – interviews over a friendly Fifa match. Forced into a corner, some of the more conservative sport authorities are quickly going to have to come to terms with a medium that has already forced itself into their domain. 

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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