20 Apr 2020

Esports gets national recognition as Covid-19 stymies other sports

10:56 am on 20 April 2020

New Zealand's national esports body says the industry is "about to explode", as Covid-19 restrictions flatten its competitors in the sporting world.

Teenager playing Counter Strike Global Offensive video game on PC. CSGO is an online multiplayer video game developed by Valve

Photo: 123RF

While sporting activities, including all major tournaments, have been postponed for weeks due to the government's restrictions, esports has been nationally recognised and the TAB has opened bets across several virtual titles for the first time.

"Covid-19 is showing us how resilient [esports] is, the fact that it can be operated from anywhere," said Ben Lenihan, the president of the New Zealand Esports Federation (NZESF).

The foundation was recognised by Sporting New Zealand last month as a national sporting organisation. New Zealand is the first country to recognise an esports body nationally, according to the NZESF.

It is also hopeful for the future, with gaming activity is spiking as people spend more time inside.

When the video game Call of Duty released an update on 27 March, data passing through Vodafone's American service provider doubled, the telecommunications company said.

Players are also taking to the new travel restrictions.

David Gore, a competitor in the computer strategy title StarCraft II, said he was playing more while under lockdown at his parent's home in Upper Hutt than before. "Since I haven't left my house for two weeks, I've played every day, like probably four hours a day at least."

Still, esports is not without its challenges.

Lenihan said the lockdown was a double-edged sword, because although the industry was enjoying more activity, many of its major sponsors had shut down. "As with any sport, you are restricted in what you can do by your resources."

He said the Christchurch massacre had made popular shooter games like Counter-Strike untenable for organisations like the Olympics, and other games were difficult for first-time viewers to understand.

"The government needs to start looking at its support of the gaming industry as opposed to the film industry," he said.

Following the sporting closures, the TAB said Covid-19 had created a "giant-sized hole" in its business.

To tackle this, it opened esports bets across five different games for the first time last month.

"Esports are now contributing about $60,000 worth of turnover a day, so it's come from 0 to 60,000," said TAB customer general manager, Gary Woodham. However, he added this paled when compared with the $1 million or more rugby and basketball turned over each day.

Covid-19 is also giving more time for esports players in the Pacific, where the industry has been hampered by slow internet speeds and due to conservative attitudes toward gaming.

In Samoa, the country is also under lockdown due to Covid-19, but the manager of one of its first esports teams, which launched last year, said they were still training hard.

"Right now they're doing the training at home, and they're looking for matches online competitively," said Francis Ah-Wong, who manages the Hero Clan, a Call of Duty team.

"We're trying for Top 50."

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