By Timothy Geigner
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been discussing for some time that esports is having itself a moment. The reason for that is obvious: there is an enormous vacuum that has been left by IRL leagues shutting down throughout the world. That vacuum is easily filled by esports that don’t rely on sweaty people rubbing up against each other in order to pull off the same style of competition. It’s all gotten big enough that the gamblers are now involved, along with most of the major sports leagues.
So what more indication can there be that esports is filling the IRL sports void during this nightmare? Well, how about at least one national sports league deciding its championship via esports standins while the league is shut down?
This time last month, the Finnish Hockey League (Liiga) became the world’s first major sports organization to announce it would unofficially settle its championship through esports. After canvassing the opinion of thousands of hockey fans after the season was cut short by COVID-19, the Liiga decided to replicate its playoffs using EA’s NHL 20. Finally, the season has been settled.
After attracting 160,000 viewers across Finland’s streaming sites and national TV–a sizeable crowd, considering the country boasts a population of just 5.5 million–the playoffs were decided in a battle between two of the nation’s most promising gamers. In the end, regular-season winners Oulun Kärpät went on to take home virtual playoff gold, courtesy of local fan Miikka Kolehmainen.
It’s an interesting little experiment. Not only did the league manage to give fans closure for the season, but it also got fans somewhat involved as the ones playing some of esports versions of their favorite teams. And, while Finland is a country where hockey is quite popular, 160k viewers in a country that small is a very impressive number. This says as much about the pent up demand for sports and competition, whatever the medium, as it does anything else. Still, there is something affirming about an IRL sports league being able to bring its season to a virtual close in this way.
While everyone around the world lives in hope that sports will resume their traditional format in the coming months, this experiment by Telia Esports has highlighted how successful the esports platform could be, especially with younger generations. Aija Saha, the marketing manager of the Liiga, explained: “We were surprised with the positive feedback and how many tuned in for the games! This is something that could be re-created in other countries and sports leagues as well.”
Kati Savolainen, the marketing and communications manager for HPK, agreed. “The ePlayoffs were fun and entertaining. Especially for the younger crowd, this must have been a fun way to take part in something that they find important.”
It’s also a great way for the league to keep up a very real connection with its fans. That’s an underrated aspect of what Liiga pulled off here. By including league fans in the fun, it built the very connection that might otherwise have been lost with fans not being able to see real life sports stars in action.
Some day IRL sports will come back. That day may well be sooner than later, in fact. Still, it’s beginning to look like the sporting world will in at least some small ways be forever changed by this crisis, with esports having a firm foothold in the public eye.