Sport has been forever changed. History might paint the transformation as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, but, in reality, the evolution had already started. The coronavirus has been a catalyst for accelerated change. The playing field has not been leveled; the boundaries have been completely redefined.
The pandemic has brought the sports industry to its knees, but against the backdrop of global crisis, opportunities have arisen for others. While the sports business is set to lose as much as $61.6 billion in missed revenues by the end of 2020, the gaming sector, on the other hand, will generate revenues of $159.3 billion, a 9.3% year-over-year increase. Although largely driven by unforeseen circumstances, the pandemic has highlighted the large gulf in the prioritization of fan experience between the two.
The sports industry has much to learn from gaming if it is to maintain and grow its global fanbase.
The impact the pandemic has had on live sport is clear for us all to see. In some way, however large or small, we have all felt the effects of it. Whether it has stopped us from going to watch our favorite team, impacted our day-to-day professional lives, or just given us less to talk about with friends, the loss of live sport has been clear to witness.
However, if there is one positive element to come out of this all for the sports industry, it is that leagues, federations, and teams have had to rethink their way of doing business. The pandemic has accelerated innovation on various fronts. Note the experiments in baseball, such as adding a runner on second base in extra innings to heighten the drama and increase the likelihood of the game ending sooner. The NBA added a play-in tournament for the last spot in the playoffs. These may have been added out of necessity this year, but they may well live on.
That spirit is especially the case with the return of sport behind closed doors, with the need to remotely manage the production of leagues and make fans feel part of the live experience from the comfort of their homes. The temporary state of the live sports sector, with limited or no fans in stadiums, has only amplified a bigger and more recognizable challenge. Pandemic or no pandemic, studies show that 90% of fans are unable to watch their favorite team in their home stadium due to factors such as location or financial considerations. Therefore, although the current global state has highlighted the lost sense of community between fans and their beloved sports, that problem has always existed for the 90% who can only watch from home.
This clearly demonstrates that sport has an issue with providing authentic fan experiences outside of the stadium.
The future of sport needs a more engaged audience. What COVID-19 has taught us is that we need to accelerate making the fan experience more interactive and engaging. The new generation of fans expects to be able to share their experiences without geographical boundaries. If we can open up the physical stadium, we can broaden the fan base and keep sports more relevant.
This is where gaming comes in. This isn’t something that has just been brought about over the past few months; the growth of the industry and the powerful success that the sector has had in engaging with its fans over recent years has been phenomenal. The prioritization of user engagement has seen games companies constantly exploring new ways to deliver content to consumers. Think about the ability to add new powers within a game, unlock a level, or introduce a new character.
As a result, gaming platforms are becoming social networks in their own right, and established social platforms are seizing this opportunity to invest further in games to maintain and grow their user database.
Gaming is driving forward the reality of the metaverse—virtual, social spaces that are always open, always on, and always expanding.
What does that mean for the sports industry? It needs to embrace innovation in terms of the production and the digital visualization of sport and how we bring games—whether it is football, basketball, hockey, cricket, tennis, or any other sport—to the fans. Broadcasters adding digital representations of the yard marker or strike zone is nice but no longer enough.
We need to give fans a more interactive way of participating in sport. We are still in the early days of sports broadcasting, and there is a lot we can learn from gaming. We also have an increased need for true fans to foster their esteem around their favorite sports and club.
What if sports production had a tech stack akin to a video game? At the core, it would have a gaming engine, built on robust machine learning to analyze what’s going on in the game—in real time. From there, it’d have a layer for services such as augmented graphics and avatars and applications such as tracking and a more intuitive replay system. To name but a few. These ideas have until now mostly belonged to gaming companies, but when applied to sport, it opens up a totally new world.
By embracing everything that the gaming industry is positively doing to engage with its fans, we see the world of sports broadcasting becoming far more interesting than it is today. Out of the pandemic, we will see new companies that have succeeded, and these new leaders will foster far more vibrant communities around live events. Gen Z will have emerged with different needs and the more popular short format of sports storytelling will continue to rise.
New, exciting technologies will continue to surface in the market that better serve fans’ sports esteem. Use of avatars will be the everyday normal, by representing the digital you in the new metaverse. Fans will be able to instantly express their emotions in the moment of the game, wherever they may be in the world, empowering fans to communicate in ways that are difficult to accomplish in today’s world.
The future of live sport is an exciting one. If sports can embrace gaming technologies, particularly in its broadcasting, the world as we currently know it is about to change forever. To which we say, game on.