A few years ago, a good friend told me that he joined an esports team in university, and I remember being a little surprised that the genre had made it into varsity. Now, thousands of fans are coming to some of the biggest venues across the globe, just to watch some of their favourite players fiercely compete for a cash prize sometimes in the multi-millions.

Helping to push esports into the mainstream was lockdown as industries were having to shut down due to  COVID-19. Communal spaces - including gyms, restaurants and pubs - were ordered to shut down while the public was enforced in lockdown by staying inside as a bid to beat COVID-19. With no means of socialising face-to-face, people turned to their screens - whether that was Youtube, Netflix or Disney+. People were finding new ways to stay entertained, but ideally with a way to stay connected to others.

And so income chats, forums and live streams. With live sports also on pause, esports found that its economic stagnation became a thing of the past. The industry noticed that the interest for esports suddenly began to rocket, achieving a staggering 35.6% CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) as people were able to watch live streams, interact on Twitter and Instagram, and follow stats and forums - much like live sports. PwCs projected global market growth for esports of US$1.8bn by 2023 but has later stated that due to the effects of COVID-19, this projection looks rather understated.

Esports has now re-become a fast-growing, multi-billion industry which also has the potential to create a huge cultural impact. In competitive tournaments, data suggests that esports leagues such as Fortnite have paid out over $700 million in prize money to professional gamers and that players who live stream can earn up to $15,000 an hour on live-streaming platforms.

Traditional sports teams are now increasingly investing in esports, the NBA 2K league - an online sim (similar to FIFA) for Basketball - is welcoming 21 NBA teams aboard. Teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets are all signed up. In May, Formula 1 had also launched a brand new F1 esports Virtual Grand Prix series, which features a number of fan-favourite F1 drivers. This was to allow fans to watch F1 races virtually, despite the current COVID-19 situation which affected this season’s race calendar.

Companies and teams are also investing millions in esports that are unrelated to live sports. The six-time La Liga Champions, Valencia CF, have their Rocket League team to represent their club. And as of December last year, Louis Vuitton teamed up with League of Legends to curate a capsule collection inspired by the game, which was available to purchase in real-life, as well as in the game. Even the world-famous have been drawn to the esports hemisphere - American Rapper Drake has been known to invest. His esports franchise, 100 Thieves, managed to fund-raise $35 million in one round, overachieving their goal of $25 million.

These investments, combined with a growing acceptance from the general public, has started to reform the esports’ nerdy image. Now, with the help of COVID-19, esports, cumulatively, is on track to becoming the most-watched sporting event on the planet. Researchers at Syracuse University found that 70 million people will watch a single esports final, which is higher than the viewership for any professional U.S. baseball final. Last year, League of Legends set the record for the number of viewers for an esports event: their viewership for the world champion finals overtook the viewership for 2018 Super Bowl, which was just over 98 million.

While esports is flourishing during the pandemic with an audience who is trapped at home, invested companies and stakeholders are doing all they can to capitalise on the ever-growing market. However, in order for it to stick, these companies have to create a strategy to help keep this progress up once COVID-19 is well behind us. If done right, these companies will be able to look back and say that the pandemic was the tipping point for when esports took over the mainstream gaming and traditional sports platforms.