If I mention ‘eSports’, you might think of League of Legends, Counter-Strike or Call of Duty. But in places far removed from traditional gaming networks, competitive gaming is impacting the world of traditional sport.

In the past few years, cycling has experienced a surge in popularity. Over the chilly winter months, my Strava feed has bustled with friends competing on Zwift. This computer game connects indoor cycling turbo trainers to the Internet, allowing cyclists to race against others around the world, in a virtual one.

Swift is typical of the current trend of gamifying sports, as can also be seen with boxing, golf and running.

Conservative sports enthusiasts may scoff at the idea of gamifying the sports they know and love for their traditional qualities, but results so far have been overwhelmingly positive. I believe gamification may unlock a number of opportunities for the forward-thinking traditional sports rights holder.

Here are five reasons why I consider eSports to be beneficial to traditional sports:

1. Participation

Humans are a social bunch. Most of us like to do sport with others, but finding the time for group exercise is often a challenge.

eSports programs allow people to join global online communities and compete. Communities like the ones found in Zwift help people be active in locations where climate can be an issue – every cyclist can relate to that horrible winter solo ride they don’t really want to go on!
By gamifying the at-home element to workouts and satisfying the desire for connection and competition, eSports will get more people active and involved in sport.

2. Talent

Some sports teams are even using eSports to recruit new talent. Recently, amateur rider Leah Thorvilson won a contract via Zwift with pro cycling team Canyon-SRAM and virtual programs like the GT Academy provide a different route into motorsport for aspiring drivers. If we arrive at a point where all that stands in the way of participation is a decent Internet connection, the pool of talent for sports will grow exponentially.

3. Fans  

As eSports increase in popularity and player numbers grow, so does the potential to introduce a massive new audience to sport. If managed sensitively and with intelligence, members of this new audience can be turned into fans of the traditional game.
Major League Soccer (MLS) is integrating eSports into its fan engagement strategy. As Chris Schlosser, Senior Vice President, MLS Digital says, “the FIFA video game creates new soccer fans in North America. It gets more people interested in the sport and ultimately they may become fans of MLS.”

4. Commercial opportunities

Rights holders working with the eSports movement have an early opportunity for increased commercial success.  The fact that brands such as Coca Cola, Monster, and Red Bull were early movers into this space proves that the commercial opportunities are very real.

It’s not yet obvious which is the best route into eSports for traditional sports, but one thing’s for sure – a young and engaged audience is there.  If more eSports competitions begin to link with existing traditional ones, media rights packages could be created exclusively for the virtual audience, or be bundled in with the rights to the traditional sports competition. Either way, both value and revenue should increase.

5. Tourism

Cities and tourist boards can add value to their sports strategy by using eSports games to showcase their environment to the world. Go to Zwift to experience Richmond’s (USA) cycling course for their simulated 2015 UCI World Championships, which gives the area great exposure. These virtual worlds provide a unique way for hosting organisations to promote their towns and cities to a global audience, connect with different sports fans, and enhance any links they may have with a particular sport. It would be fascinating to know how many cyclists will visit Richmond in the real world as a result of a first encounter in the virtual.

Is it so hard to imagine pro cycling teams competing in the Zwift program, or athletics or Formula 1 owning an eSports season that runs alongside their regular season?  I don’t think so.

With the rapid rise in popularity of eSports, I’m sure we’ll see more rights holders creating their own virtual competitions to run alongside their current schedules. The possibilities of involving eSports in traditional sports are infinite – I’m fascinated to see how this relationship will evolve.