US sports broadcasters, facing a dramatic loss of content since the cancellation of professional competitions because of COVID-19, are increasingly turning to e-sports to fill the gap.

Axios reports that ESPN broadcast 12 hours of e-sports at the weekend, including the vehicle-soccer game Rocket League, the basketball simulation game NBA 2K and Madden, the American football game.

And Fox Sports, having recently agreed a deal with the NFL, last week aired a two-hour Madden NFL Invitational on its primary FS1 channel, featuring former and current football stars, with former Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick hosting the event.

Players, too, see e-sports as a way of keeping in touch with their fans. Some, like NBA star Kevin Durant, are getting involved to raise money for charity. Some competitions are also being used to raise funds to help with COVID-19 relief efforts.

Meanwhile, e-sports streaming platforms such as Twitch, Mixer, Caffeine, and Discord enjoyed their best month for revenue in March, based on numbers from Apptopia.

E-sports may have gone mainstream as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, but the category has also been negatively impacted as many events traditionally rely on streaming live contests with big audiences.

“I think everybody is struggling,” Jonathan Harrop, Senior Director of Global Marketing & Communications at AdColony, a mobile advertising company, told Axios.

“So many e-sports are being pushed to live in-person events and obviously that has been completely shut down.”

And Harrop says it’s far from clear whether e-sports will prove to be audience pleasers for the mainstream sports networks.

“There’s this weird substitution paradigm at play: how do e-sports do on broadcast TV versus online streaming websites. How many 55-year-olds are going to tune in and say, these aren’t real people, what’s happening?”

It’s a view possibly shared elsewhere. Andrew Georgiou, Eurosport’s president told SportBusiness the market had “clearly pivoted towards virtual and e-sports”. But the broadcaster was looking beyond e-sports and archive content to attract sports viewers.

“Our view is we will borrow on virtual and e-sports, no doubt, but it won’t be the sum total of what we’re doing,” Georgiou said.

Meanwhile, home computer gaming via PCs and consoles has seen massive growth as a result of the stay-at-home message in the US, according to Verizon, with gaming as a sector up 75% in data usage, far more than general web traffic, up 20%, and video traffic, up 12%.

Sourced from Axios, SportBusiness; additional content by WARC staff