By Matt Petras
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, The Pittsburgh Knights, a local esports franchise, were coming up with a schedule that would last from May through the end of the year, which included a slew of in-person tournaments as well as events at spaces like Stage AE.
“Obviously, that landscape has completely changed,” says the franchise’s CEO James O’Connor.
The pandemic has put traditional sports on hold around the country, but competitive video games still have a path to continue through the internet. As O’Connor puts it, “you can’t play baseball from home.”
During the pandemic, the Knights have lost important revenue from the loss of in-person events but have a lot to gain from huge bumps in viewership for online tournaments.
Around the world, gamers have been playing and watching video games much more than before the pandemic. Far more eyes are now on Twitch, the premiere place for both casual and professional gamers to stream gameplay. Traffic for online esports tournaments have surged, and the Knights are certainly seeing that.
At first glance, this is promising for esports, an industry that has been striving toward the prominence of sports like baseball and football through video games like Overwatch, Counter-Strike and League of Legends. However, the business model for esports has traditionally relied on in-person tournaments.
About a quarter of the Knights’ revenue was anticipated to come from in-person events this year, according to O’Connor. These also serve as marketing opportunities for the game developers and the teams.
For players, missing out on tournaments can also simply be a bummer. Garett Bambrough, the esports consultant for the league, played Counter-Strike competitively with and against O’Connor years ago and can attest to the joy of an in-person tournament.
“Just being able to be in another country and compete, in front of a live audience and so on and so forth, that’s the best part of being a pro gamer, to be honest with you,” Bambrough says. “And that part’s been taken away.”
There’s also additional fun in watching the players as they win and lose throughout an in-person tournament.
“You see them get loud and excited and pumped up, or you see them get sad and depressed. And fans like to see the experiences of the players as it’s happening,” Bambrough says. “But online, you don’t get to see those people’s expressions at all.”
It’s not standard practice for esports players to have cameras streaming them as they play in a tournament, which means that the sponsor-clad jerseys aren’t visible during online tournaments. Getting a camera on every player would be costly and require a lot of behind-the-scenes work to get players a properly set up camera. It’s also an addition that makes some players uncomfortable, according to Bambrough.
“For a lot of teams, they’re not cool with that,” Bambrough says. “They don’t want that.”
Even before the pandemic, the Knights tried to give their fans some window into the players’ reactions and conversations during online tournament gameplay. The league has a video series called “Rocket League Comms Chaos,” for example, which features compilations of gameplay clips with the players’ audio attached as they communicate with each other through audio.
O’Connor believes that the Knights’ business model, in particular, is well-suited for a transition into online-only competition, partly because much of their competing was already online.
“We’re not sitting here and saying ‘oh no, our team isn’t going to the finals anymore in a certain city or Chicago or wherever to a live event, and our sponsors aren’t being represented’ because we’re doing online tournaments,” O’Connor says.
They’re also doing online events like the Valorant Charity Invitational, which Sheetz and G FUEL sponsor. Players competed to raise money for protective equipment and other medical supplies to combat COVID-19, playing the new game Valorant.
This new game has been making enormous waves in the competitive gaming community, bringing in ludicrous amounts of online viewers. It garnered 1.73 million concurrent viewers on Twitch, the second-most in history, when its early, pre-release version launched this month, according to ESPN. To put this in perspective, the only game to ever surpass this, League of Legends, a game that’s been an esports smash hit for years, did so last year in a global tournament.
“As messed up as this may sound, the fact that the game came out during the virus might have helped them,” Bambrough said. “Because everyone’s at home. Everyone’s online.”
It makes sense that players and viewers alike are enjoying the game, as it’s more or less a combination of two of the most popular competitive games right now, Counter-Strike and Overwatch, and it’s developed by Riot Games, who created League of Legends.
It is a five-vs-five shooter that generally plays a lot like Counter-Strike, an intense and technical first-person shooter, but with a slew of different characters with their own unique abilities, a concept popularized in esports by Overwatch. And it’s phenomenal, Bambrough says.
“We’re very curious to see how this game is going to evolve over the next year or two, because the strategies you can do in this game are endless because the abilities add another layer that Counterstrike doesn’t have,” Bambrough says.
The power wielded by this game means that the Knights are keeping a close eye on the game and calculating how they’re going to play it.
“This game, we feel for sure it’s going to be successful, we’re just waiting to see how it develops, and we’re going to go from there,” Bambrough says. “We’re going day-by-day with Valorant for sure.”
So in some ways, what the Pittsburgh Knights and other esports teams have been doing has largely been similar to what they did before the pandemic. The same players are playing the same games, though there are new challenges for the business of the industry as it learns to forgo revenue and marketing from in-person events and lean into the new eyes paying attention to online tournaments.
“I can tell you that our phone is off the hook, and it’s completely different,” O’Connor says. “Honestly, it’s sad that it’s happened right now. It’s a concern for everybody. I hope everybody is safe. It’s highlighted our work, and we’re just trying to do a good job in that light.”