Hit Start: Video games level up in the coronavirus age


Photo credit: Richard Andrus & Michael Kelley

As the world rolls into its first summer with social distancing, the gaming industry and its community have aligned to ensure those stuck at home will be able to play and watch games, old and new, for the inevitable future.

Digital Trade Shows

Since the cancelation of E3, one of the largest industry trade shows, back in early March, various conventions and corporations have followed suit and either canceled their events completely or decided to host online events this summer.

Tokyo Game Show and The Game Developers Conference (GDC) are among the multitude of events that have shifted digitally in light of the pandemic, with the latter due to take place in August and the former with a date to be decided.

New Game+ Expo, a showcase of 40 titles from various Japanese and North American publishers such as Sega of America and SNK Corporation, will stream on Twitch on June 23.

Independent and mid-sized studios, including Paradox Interactive and Rebellion, plan on showing off their titles during Guerrilla Collective, an event hosted by Kinda Funny co-founder Greg Miller from June 6 to 8.

Larger publishers will be unveiling their latest titles at brand new digital events, such as Summer Game Fest (SGF), an event organized by Game Awards executive producer and host Geoff Keighley that will last throughout the summer.

Bethesda, Ubisoft, Electronic Arts (EA) and CD Projekt Red are among the publishers who will be a part of SGF, which will conclude with a digital rendition of Gamescom, an annual convention in Cologne, Germany, on Aug. 24.

The event had its first live stream on May 12, which formally unveiled the remaster of “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2” alongside gameplay for the upcoming PS4 exclusive “Ghost of Tsushima.”

Microsoft plans on hosting monthly events as part of SGF as well, showcasing more details regarding the specifications and first-party games for its next-generation console, the Xbox Series X.

Nintendo, which annually showcases their latest titles in June, is expected to delay their showcase until later in the year due to how the current state of emergency in Japan has forced more employees to work from home.

Relief Efforts

Members of the gaming industry and community have made various efforts to reduce the spread and impact of COVID-19.

Activision Blizzard, Riot Games and Twitch are among the enterprises that have partnered through the #PlayApartTogether campaign, which aims to assert the importance of social connections during the pandemic.

These enterprises have incorporated pandemic protection methods from the World Health Organization (WHO) into their games and services to inform their users of how to stay safe and productive while in self-isolation.

The first-ever virtual Stay At Home Slam took place on Facebook Gaming on May 3, with star athletes and celebrities teaming up and competing against each other in Mario Tennis Aces for a $1 million donation to a charity of their choice.

American tennis player Taylor Fritz and Tik Tok personality Addison Rae beat Japanese tennis star Kei Nishikori and DJ Steve Aoki to win the tournament, providing their grand prize to the No Kid Hungry campaign.

All of the players of the event received a $25,000 donation to their charity of choice.

Games Done Quick, a series of charitable video game marathons, held Corona Relief Done Quick, a three-day speedrunning festival to raise funds for the humanitarian aid organization Direct Relief, from April 17 to 19 on Twitch.

The event was able to raise $400,000 in less than 60 hours, with organizers saying it marked a new high for their side event efforts.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn players gathered in-game on April 11 in remembrance of a player known as Ferne Le’roy, who recently died from COVID-19.

Players from all around the world came to pay tribute to Le’roy by spending an hour traveling across the virtual world in her memory.

Ndemic Creations, the studio behind the apocalyptic simulation game Plague Inc, made a split donation of $250,000 to the Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.

In alliance with the WHO and the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, the studio is creating a new game mode for Plague Inc. that will allow players to save the world from a deadly pandemic instead of the opposite.

“Eight years ago, I never imagined the real world would come to resemble a game of Plague Inc. or that so many players would be using Plague Inc. to help them get through an actual pandemic,” said James Vaughan, creator of Plague Inc.


Due to the social distancing codes and practices put in place by the pandemic, traditional sporting leagues have decided to postpone league play for an unspecified amount of time.

However, the shutdown did not apply to the professional gaming and esports industry, which has seen an exponential leap in viewership in the first quarter of 2020.

Twitch, the leading streaming service of the scene, reportedly saw an estimated 23 percent increase in viewership in March, reaching all-time high figures for hours watched and streamed alongside average concurrent viewership.

While the esports scene was flourishing before the outbreak, with live tournaments for Riot’s “League of Legends” and Activision Blizzard’s “Overwatch” selling out large-scale venues worldwide, it has become increasingly more prevalent in recent months with tournaments shifting to virtual means.

Despite setbacks and cancelations of live events, which provide teams with the majority of their revenue, competitive leagues have transitioned to entirely online play, with the Overwatch League (OWL) and the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) both continuing to strive.

With organizations, players and content creators developing a direct link to potential consumers, businesses are taking advantage of long-term partnerships within the industry.

McDonald’s, Chipotle and Nestle are among the corporations that have sponsored teams in the OWL, while others have invested in the ever growing amount of professional athletes joining the digital landscape.

Traditional Sports Shift Online

A variety of traditional sports enterprises have shifted to virtual environments to keep their fans entertained and occupied during the pandemic.

Over a dozen teams of the National Hockey League (NHL), including the New Jersey Devils, have worked with EA Sports’ “NHL 20” to bring simulated games on every scheduled game night to fans during the pandemic.

With an assist from its content and marketing team, the Devils were able to treat these games just like any other in person.

The three-time Stanley Cup-winning team was able to get Matt Loughlin, its radio announcer, to commentate the game, which had sponsored happenings from M&Ms, PSE&G, Investors Bank and RWJBarnabas Health throughout, and hold postgame interviews with players regarding their virtual performance.

The Washington Capitals are another team that has integrated “NHL 20” into their season, becoming the first club to build and air broadcasts centered around simulated games on their regional sports network, NBC Sports Washington.

Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals went head-to-head with hockey legend Wayne Gretsky on “NHL 20” in mid-April to raise funds for relief efforts related to COVID-19.

The showdown, which had over 300,000 viewers on Twitch, ended up raising over $40,000, with half going to the Edmonton Food Bank and the other half to MSE Foundation’s Feeding the Frontlines fund.

The NHL expects to move to “Phase 2” of reopening in mid-June with the reopening of team facilities, which will only allow six players to be within them at a time.

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) joined forces with Fox Sports and simulation program iRacing to create the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, the first virtual races to be televised live on a Fox network.

The races, which featured the stock-car racing organization’s drivers and dignitaries, took place every Sunday from the end of March to early May.

NASCAR returned to physical racing with a series of seven races in mid-to-late May, with three at South Carolina’s Darlington Raceway and four at North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway, the latter of which also held the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) also virtually adapted with the times, as it, in collaboration with game developer 2K and the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), formed the NBA 2K Players Tournament, which saw Kevin Durant, Trae Young and other players compete against each other on “NBA 2K20.”

Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns won the tournament, which aired on ESPN from April 3 to 11, gaining bragging rights and a $100,000 donation to a charity of his choosing.

The NBA 2K League, the competitive scene for “NBA 2K” games, resumed on May 5 after postponing the start of its season back in mid-March.

On the other hand, the NBA itself plans on restarting its 2020 season at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, in late July.

What’s next for sports

As a result of the reduction in traditional sporting events due to the coronavirus, people have started questioning whether or not the world will have as many big-time sporting events once a vaccine is readily available to the public.

Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, addressed these concerns about a post-coronavirus world in a letter to the Olympic Movement on April 29.

“What is clear [about this world], however, is that probably none of us will be able to sustain every single initiative or event that we were planning before this crisis hit,” he stated. “We shall also have to consider what social distancing may mean for our relations with e-sports.”

Bach went on to quote a recent IOC statement, urging stakeholders not only to consider how to govern virtual renditions of their sport but also to look into working with game publishers.

This statement sided with the multitude of success the industry has seen during the pandemic could very well see the beginnings of a new era of sports history: one that will see its stadiums replaced by pixels on a television screen.

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