Coronavirus has stopped every major sport across the globe. (You might have noticed.)
However, digital sports are flourishing – with everything from online chess to marble racing experiencing a huge spike in participation.
Esports has filled the void left by its ‘real world’ counterparts: for example, virtual grand prix races have garnered millions of views on YouTube alone.
As well as giving fans their sporting fix, these virtual races are attracting a remarkable range of competitors: how often do you see Lando Norris share a grid with Liam Payne and Sir Chris Hoy?
We spoke with Jamie MacLaurin, co-founder and chief sporting officer of leading esports team Veloce, to discover more about what might currently be the most popular sport in the world – online and off…
This must be an exciting time for you, albeit under less than ideal circumstances…
Yeah, it's been a mad few weeks! We don't want to be singing and dancing about our situation given the current situation for most of the world. Our philosophy's been to change the mood among the public: give them some entertainment and fun. Going by the events so far, that's certainly something we've achieved.
Talk us through the virtual Grand Prix…
When the first Grand Prix of the year was cancelled, we put on a virtual replacement to give fans their racing fix. A lot of the Formula One drivers were at home, people were isolating at home without any sport to watch, so we put together a perfect storm of real life racing drivers, our own esports drivers, YouTubers, and celebrities such as Ian Poulter and Thibaut Courtois. It was an eclectic grid!
These guys were competing against each other, and in the real world they'd never get the opportunity to do so. You've got Lando Norris racing against the Real Madrid goalkeeper, a golfer and some Esports guys. It's bringing industries together. At one point, we had over 200,000 live viewers of the race, and we've picked up over three and a half million views on YouTube.
The numbers are incredible...
Yes – and that's just YouTube. A lot of the guys are screening the races on their own platforms. For example, Lando Norris had over 100,000 live viewers on his Twitch account; I think at the time he was the most watched gamer in the world, which is impressive for a Formula One driver!
It's an interesting time. Lando Norris has a huge profile in the real sporting world but he's also a gamer, he enjoys racing online when he's not on the real track. Gone are the days when Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen felt untouchable. Fans are a lot closer to the likes of Lando because they watch him from his bedroom playing games and get to chat to him online. It's a very interesting dynamic.
Millions of people are obsessed with esports - but millions more have never heard of it, or can't understand the appeal...
It's a great point. It's something we were aware of during the virtual Grand Prix, when we had this huge audience watching our race. We knew that maybe more than half of that audience had never even watched a virtual race before and didn't know what it was! But because of the promotion that Formula One gave it, it brought an audience that maybe didn't even know what esports was.
The challenge is to capture those people, and tell them to come back and watch more content, keep them engaged rather than being a one-off. That's the ultimate challenge and one that's quite difficult.
The younger generation have grown up with esports and they get it; but I'm 30, and a lot of my friends aren't interested in esports. It's very, very exciting times, but also very challenging in the sense that here and now is the moment that we've got to make the most of.
Although there are teams, I assume most of the fans support their favourite players – is that right?
I think generally it's easier to resonate with a person rather than a team. We've got quite a big fan base, and quite a strong, passionate one. There are a lot of esports teams out there that have brands as powerful as football clubs around the world. Their net worth and their reach and their engagement is through the roof. You'd be amazed at some of the figures that some of the American and Asian teams get.
A lot of the people enjoy watching a personality at home streaming a game, but what's really changed the game is that anybody can become an entertainer or broadcaster. You don't have to be lucky and picked by a TV show, or work through the ranks to become an actor. You can be at home, on your computer or on your Playstation, you turn on Twitch and you're streaming to an audience.
There's a guy called Tyler Blevins, known as 'Ninja', doing deals with Adidas, David Beckham, Red Bull. Huge brands for multimillion pound deals because of the number of fans that he's built playing Fortnite.
There are so many examples of people like that. They have fans who get home from work or school, grab a laptop and watch their streams like you would Coronation Street.
We ran an article on Esports a few years ago – it felt like the future then, and it’s only been growing…
Having spoken to people in other sports, there's a concern that the younger generation don't actually watch the real world very much. They're consuming YouTube and they're consuming Twitch, like we used to watch TV. Esports is a very exciting market, one that's growing very fast. Europe is still behind the likes of Asia and North America but it's a powerhouse of a sport coming through.
What's a good entry point for esports?
The two games with the lowest barrier for entry are probably Fifa and Formula One. They're both enjoyable for experts or casual players. Plus, the fact you have the real life equivalent helps, because there's a huge audience in both sports in the real world, so naturally they lend themselves well to making the transition to esports.
You've mentioned some of your celebrity players - who would be your dream addition to the team?
That's a good question. Given the fact we're primarily in Formula One, it would probably have to be Lewis Hamilton. He's an icon of the sport with a huge audience.
Your co-founder Jean Eric Vergne recently said that esports shouldn't expect to maintain its current viewing figures once lockdown is over...
A lot of people are trying to do events and make the most of the situation while the audience is there, and I think there's a danger of expecting this will last. A lot of the real life drivers, for example, they're not going to have the time to be doing online racing once the season starts.
The challenge for us is to create events that work for now, but also look at how to retain the audience once things go back to normal.
Speaking of Vergne, did you take inspiration from Formula E?
JEV's been a huge part of our business since conception. Esports and Formula E fit well together. They're both quite disruptive, they go against the grain. We try and challenge ourselves to be different and we put on different events and things that people haven't seen before, which is never an easy task. JEV's been a leader in his sport, and we lean on him quite heavily to guide us into the esports space.
What are your plans for the future?
We have a long-term strategy: we're in the middle of an investment round at the moment to raise money to grow the business, scale up what we've been doing. With esports, it's a land-grab moment, really. We're in a position, certainly in the racing stakes, to dominate for a long period of time.
What we've seen over the last two weeks has been great but there's still a lot to do. We work with huge content creators on YouTube that reach audiences of about 60m people. Our plan is to keep growing that number and give our fans and our audience content that they enjoy watching because naturally that brings revenue, sponsorship and advertising in a variety of different ways. For now, we haven't got a moment to breathe!
It sounds like there are a lot of investment opportunities in this space?
As sport goes, there's not one in the world that I would choose over esports to invest in: given the opportunity digitally that it provides, and the reach, access and engagement that it provides brands and companies. Personally, I would really encourage people to look seriously at the industry.
The Veloce FIFA tournament takes place Saturday April 11 at 6pm BST