Professional sports have been hit hard by the corona crisis and could be impacted by social distancing measures for months, if not years, to come. In response to this, athletes are looking for digital alternatives, such as sim racing and virtual cycling races. It’s unlikely that these initiatives will sufficiently alleviate the loss of “real” sports, but they do point to a broader trend of traditional sports and esports increasingly converging.

Our observations

  • The Champions League match between Atalanta Bergamo and Valencia of 19 February in Milan is now seen as an important source of contamination, as the virus was able to spread rapidly, both among the audience as well as among players and staff.
  • As a consequence of several countries going in lockdown, virtually all sports have come to a standstill. Since then, ways of practicing sports in the “1.5-meter society” have been in the works.
  • Many professional racecar drivers already partook in sim racing, and this is now put to use as an alternative to, among others, Formula 1 and NASCAR, races that cannot take place physically anymore. Until recently, these races could only be viewed online, but they are now also aired by linear TV channels. The degree of (physical) precision of these simulators is so high that even professional teams use them extensively to (further) develop real racecars and optimally adjust the car to each circuit.
  • With regard to cycling, platforms such as Zwift and BKool are popular among professionals and amateurs training at home. Last month, the Tour of Flanders was ridden by 18 professionals, at home on the chassis dynamometer, and was aired live on Belgian television. With 800,000 viewers, this virtual edition might not have been as widely viewed as the regular Tour would have been, but it still would have made the top ten of cycling races.
  • Two former professional darts players, Van Barneveld and Taylor, have attempted to revive their old rivalry in a one-on-one game from their respective living rooms, for charity. Electronic dartboards made it possible to register the scores in real-time.
  • Chess, a sport that does not involve physical contact and only small audiences, continued for a while, even when other sports had already been stopped, but was eventually halted after all because of travel restrictions.

Connecting the dots

rowing and running, for which the necessary hardware at least is available, in the form of rowing machines and treadmills. As yet, chances are slim that these kinds of virtualized sports will be as popular as their traditional predecessors. They lack certain elements, such as unpredictable weather conditions and the immediate danger to life and limb that makes athletes heroes. Above all, in digitally mediated sports, what’s missing is the direct connection between what we see (the match) and the athlete delivering his or her performance. As we discussed two weeks ago, we’re rapidly digitizing all kinds of practices that we’re now unable to carry out in the physical space. To a certain extent, this also applies to sports. Essentially, playing a sport is of course a physical activity that cannot fully be digitized, but athletes are looking for ways to, virtually, continue to play sports together, be coached (e.g. digital coaches) and, where professional athletes are concerned, to involve audiences. Professional athletes especially need other ways to generate income due to cancelled matches and sponsors that are beginning to withdraw. But for the vast majority of professional sports, no digital alternative is available (yet).
It’s no coincidence that car racing and cycling were able to switch to online so quickly. Sim racing has been popular for years among gamers and professional racing drivers, such as Max Verstappen, and the hard- and software for it are already highly advanced. The same goes for so-called e-cycling, in which competitions have been around a while already (including cheaters), and for which ready-made systems are available. Equally unsurprising is the fact that these are the two sports in which the skills needed in the original and the digital version are largely the same (besides, admittedly very relevant, aspects such as the physical toll of car racing or the steering skills of cyclists). Other sports are lagging behind these two and probably aren’t as easy to “virtualize”. Take, for instance, all team sports and sports that involve a lot of physical contact. And yet, there probably will be more that dare to take the (temporary) leap and this will certainly include sports such as

In that sense, it was telling that the commentators of the virtual Tour of Flanders seemed more interested in the athletes in their living rooms than in the digital rendering of the progress of the competition.
This is not to say there haven’t always been virtual or mediated elements in the ways we experience sports. Even in the early years of many sports, when fans could only read about matches or hear about them on the radio. These days, we see this type of derivative of the original match or performance in the form of live tickers and dashboards that don’t necessarily display the sport itself but a (quantitative) representation of it. Possibilities for amateur athletes to make a digital print of their performances are increasing as well, by means of smartwatches, smart training equipment and platforms such as Strava, where athletes can compete with each other.

A trend in the opposite direction is visible in the world of gaming and esports; gaming itself is becoming more physical (which started with the Nintento Wii) and this development is supported by increasingly advanced controllers, VR-goggles, haptic suits and treadmills in which the gamer has to deliver an increasingly physical performance). Because this type of gaming requires costly equipment, and space, it will take place in dedicated arcades mostly, which will come to look more and more like fitness centers (and vice versa). Moreover, the rise of championships with live audiences shows that even here, there is a need for actually experiencing the performance (even though online platforms such as Twitch already amply meet the need to not only see the game, but also the players).
The current crisis will most probably lead to the development of more of these types of hybrid forms, with the traditional athlete entering the virtual realm more and more often, while esports increasingly drifts towards a fully physical performance to win over part of the traditional sports audience that isn’t interested in dexterous but athletically unimpressive athletes.

Implications

  • In the coming months, if not years, the main issue for the great global sports will be whether it’s possible to offer an interesting spectacle without a live audience. In that regard, for most sports, the question won’t be how to virtualize the sport itself, but rather how to mimic the ambience and dynamic of an ecstatic crowd. A relatively simple way to do this would be to air in a stadium the (cumulative) sounds of fans watching at home. The Formula E, the electric racecar championship, even takes this one step further; fans can influence the contest by giving their favorite driver a so-called fanboost.

  • When professional athletes take to the digital realm more, a space will emerge where amateur athletes can compete with the pros. It’s already possible for the driver racing from his attic to take on Max Verstappen (albeit not live) and it seems a matter of time before this becomes possible in other sports as well.