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CES 2021: Esports growth 'turbocharged' in 2020 due to COVID-19 pandemic

As traditional sports leagues came to a halt in early 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the esports industry functioned with minimal interruptions and actually gained momentum, panelists noted at this year's CES, the Consumer Technology Association's annual technology and media trade show.

Unlike college basketball, the MLB and others, esports leagues such as Riot Games Inc.'s League Championship Series, or LCS, maintained most of their original programming schedules by moving to a fully remote broadcast with players streaming from their homes or other remote locations.

The absence of esports tournaments at live venues did not impact overall viewership numbers, either. The LCS continues to be the third-most-watched professional sports league in the U.S. in the 18-to-34-year-old demographic, said LCS Commissioner Chris Greeley, citing Nielsen data.

"We hit nearly 35 million total hours watched, with an average minute audience of about 485,000 for our summer finals," Greeley said. "We had a peak viewership of somewhere over 550,000, which were our biggest numbers in four to five years."

The LCS also managed to retain its advertisers and brand partners, Greeley said. He pointed out that most of those companies also sponsor conventional sports that were not playing.

"The fact that we were able to keep the show going, still connect with the fans and help deliver their brand message was really important for them," Greeley said.

As a result, the LCS managed to land more substantial sponsorship deals, including a major one from Honda — the league's first automotive partner. The carmaker's logos were displayed within the games being played, similar to how an advertiser's logo is displayed on the court during NBA matches.

"We're very proud that we didn't lose any revenue or any partners," Greeley said. "Partner satisfaction is as high as it's ever been ... we think we're really helping to build a foundation for the sustainability of esports."

Speaking at another CES 2021 esports panel, Seth Schneider, the product manager of esports at NVIDIA Corp.'s GeForce gaming division, said that esports was already going mainstream, with traditional sports athletes and other major names increasingly investing in the medium. COVID-19 just "turbocharged" that process, he said, with other entertainment industries jumping on game streaming platforms such as Amazon.com Inc.'s Twitch to try and grab a piece of the uninterrupted viewership.

"We suddenly had musicians holding concerts in Fortnite and major sports personalities playing video games on livestreams," Schneider said. "This exposed gaming and esports to people who had never even thought about competitive gaming as a concept."

Heather Garozzo, vice president of talent at international esports team Dignitas, said most traditional sports leagues have started paying more attention to esports to try and capitalize on the innovative ways the industry is rapidly building viewership.

"Esports players have a direct line to their fans when they stream their games online," Garozzo said. "Viewers can chat while watching the games on Twitch, and the players often livestream behind-the-scenes as well, which in turn boosts viewer engagement. The NBA has already started doing this, as well, and you may see other sports organizations making the jump to Twitch."

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