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Covid's impact on esports events in 2020

Covid-19 had a huge impact on esports in 2020. Find out just how organizers handled it, as well as the viewership numbers.


The Covid-19 pandemic had a massive impact on everybody in 2020, from individuals to the largest businesses. It’s no different when it comes to esports and specifically tournaments, despite the industry flourishing coming into the year. 

The most significant impact came from the cancelation of LAN, or in-person, events as restrictions all over the world made it impossible to host a large scale event. Instead, just about every pro scene moved online and the majority of the year saw online competition only, confined to individual regions. 

This expectedly had a massive impact on esports as a whole, from viewership to schedules, player quality of life, overall competition, and much more. Let’s take a look at the exact impact of Covid on esports tournaments in 2020. 

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How Covid-19 affected esports tournament viewership

At the time, it was difficult to say how LAN event cancellation would affect viewership. On one hand, the prestige and ‘feel’ of LANs was gone, but this did open up events to be more flexible, as everything could be done online. 

There were definite advantages and disadvantages to this. The biggest advantages came from the slight freedom of schedules and not needing to plan around a physical area. Meanwhile, the biggest disadvantages were every event feeling quite similar and the lack of international competition due to ping differences. 

Surprisingly enough, though, both of these didn’t really seem to matter too much as events stayed fairly consistent throughout the year. There weren't any major drops or rises in viewership and overall, the ship seemed steady. 

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For example, Counter-Strike’s IEM Katowice saw a peak of just over 1 million concurrent viewers in 2020, while it was 1.2 Million in 2019. Similarly for Cologne, in 2020 the European and American events peaked at a combined 490,000 concurrent viewers, while 2019’s ESL One Cologne peaked at 506,000 concurrent viewers. 

This isn’t just a one game basis, either. League of Legend’s LCS Summer saw a peak of 545,000 viewers this year, while it had just 387,000 in 2019 - a very impressive growth. Even smaller esports like Starcraft 2 came through fairly unscathed, with just a 9000 peak concurrent viewer difference between 2019 and 2020. 

Although things look fairly stable, there is a question of what could have been? Esports has been on an upwards trend for years now and there was a real possibility of much stronger growth. However, it’s also very possible that outside factors, like more people staying at home, encouraged more viewership throughout. 

It’s honestly quite difficult to tell how things could have gone, although it will be very interesting to compare the numbers to 2021, as well as the numbers whenever the pandemic subsides enough to host LAN events again. 

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How did esports event organizers handle Covid compilations?

Esports event organizers did all they could to host LAN events again in 2020, but to put it simply, their hands were tied. It was impossible to safely host an event in the majority of the world, even without an audience, and action had to move online or be canceled. 

As previously mentioned, this brought some advantages and disadvantages with organizers simply rolling with the punches. Some massive events, such as Dota 2’s The International, were simply canceled, while others were moved online. Riot Games surprisingly managed to hold their famous League of Legends World Championship on LAN, flying out every team to China and confining them to two weeks of isolation prior to the event. It ended up being the most viewed tournament of the year, although that's due to the popularity of the game rather than the LAN environment. 

Regardless, the majority of esports action continued online and a very good example to look at here is ESL and their CS:GO Pro League. The majority of it is usually played online, ending in a LAN playoff, so things weren’t so different. However this time a new set of challenges presented themselves, most notably a viewer burnout of events. 

At the time of the ESL Pro League, fans had already been viewing events online for months and there was a general feeling of “everything’s the same.” After all, there were no new arenas, no crowds, it was just the players on the same old maps, sitting in the same old rooms, playing the same old game. 

However, ESL really managed to spice things up, adding different commentators, all-new special segments, interviews, and more to really sell that each event was different from the previous, despite all having essentially the same setting. 

It worked amazingly well and despite overall stability or even loss of viewership in 2020, the Pro League thrived. Compared to 2019, the 2020 edition of the ESL Pro League saw a:

  • 90.8% increase of video plays
  • 129.5% increase of hours watched
  • 48.8% increased peak concurrent viewership  

The company’s ability to shake things up while providing consistent content paid off and they were able to have a very successful year despite outside factors providing significant challenges. Of course, ESL weren’t the only ones battling these problems and seeing success, but they are one of the best examples. 

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Going back to an overall look at things, however, Covid definitely had a significant impact on 2020 and very likely not for the better. There was a definite feeling of stagnation in esports this year, both in the numbers and overall content. Even though some efforts did do well to battle this, the huge potential of esports meant that the year could have been much bigger and even if some events did succeed, the majority of 2020 remained relatively the same as 2019 when it comes to the numbers. 

Hopefully, 2021 will see a return to a more ‘normal’ esports environment and we can see just how the numbers change going back to the way things were. 

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