The UCI Esports Arena is the first of its kind on a college campus and is located at the Student Center Terrace. Students, staff, faculty, alumni and guests are welcome, where we provide a variety of the most popular games at UCI.
“I think the sizzle of esports that comes with major live events is missing, but the community and broader ecosystem are thriving,” says Mark Deppe, director of UCI Esports, here in the campus’s esports arena. Elena Zhukova / University of California Office of the President

In person or online? In the early days, video gamers went to the corner arcade. Then, later, they ordered pizza and crashed friends’ homes to wire together rows of consoles and computers for local area network parties. As internet speeds rose, though, gaming moved online, where players gathered to navigate fantasy worlds or blast each other in simulated war zones.

Today, competitive esports is increasingly an in-person venture. Gaming relies ever more on live tournaments replete with huge stages, giant video screens and thunderous crowds. But COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have prompted something of a return to old ways as players have no option but to compete only online.

Mark Deppe, director of UCI Esports and commissioner of the North America Scholastic Esports Federation, says that the coronavirus-caused cancellation of many tournaments punched a hole in the business of gaming – even as online viewership has risen. Here, he discusses current and future ramifications of COVID-19 on esports.

Most people think of gaming as something that happens at home and online, but for the world of competitive esports, that’s not really the case. How have esports been affected by the stay-at-home directives?

COVID-19 has been both a challenge and a boon for esports. More people are playing video games and watching online content than ever before. The UCI teams have been able to compete in collegiate tournaments from home. With that said, all major live events were cancelled, including the Overwatch League matches in March and April and the League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational, which was originally scheduled for May. I think the sizzle of esports that comes with major live events is missing, but the community and broader ecosystem are thriving.

How are UCI’s esports teams coping with the pandemic-related shutdowns and cancellations?

We feel the same disappointment that many folks do. Our League of Legends team was a top contender for the national championship this year, and our season was cancelled during the playoffs. On the other hand, our Overwatch team will have that opportunity since their season has just resumed and will finish up online.

Esports is still figuring out its business model and major revenue streams. How has the pandemic changed the conversation around the business of esports?

In general, esports have never been profitable. Live events are part of the strategy to get us there. I think the real opportunity for esports revenue is the monetization of viewership through ad sales and sponsorships. With more people online and fewer options in movies and with traditional sports, this could be a moment for esports to shine. Many can still happen online and even thrive. The major professional leagues have all restarted through purely online competition. It’s not ideal, but it is possible. Internet lag times do prevent some games, like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, from being played competitively online. I expect live events to play a big role for top-tier esports in the future, but the vast majority of esports engagement will be online.

How will esports fare post-pandemic compared to traditional sports?

​For the most part, I think we’ll face similar challenges. Finances will be stressed, and budgets will be cut. The real question is whether or not team owners and decision-makers choose to allocate their resources differently. We might see traditional sports team owners shift investment into esports – or they might double down on traditional sports. We’re already seeing top game streaming platforms being used for alternative purposes, including traditional sports. The NFL has broadcast games on Twitch, and NASA recently broadcast the SpaceX launch. Media companies are increasingly trying to connect with young people, and traditional avenues like cable television aren’t where millennials spend time.

What factors will esports tournament organizers need to bear in mind as they think about hosting in-person events again?

We certainly need to reconfigure our competitive spaces to allow for social distancing. Players really only need to be in the same building, on the same digital network, so that gives organizers a lot of flexibility with spacing of seats. The slightly harder challenge is protecting working staff and spectators, but every events person in the world is already working on those contingencies. Esports should be much easier to implement than sports where players have physical contact with one another. Here at UCI, we have a world-class esports arena, and we’re prepping for social distancing measures within the arena. We’ll have reduced capacity and shorter operating hours. We still plan on being a home for gamers and a place where people can meet up and have fun.