On March 22, a few weeks after the world shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR debuted its iRacing Pro Invitational Series on national television– drawing more than 900,000 viewers on FS1. In the ensuing weeks, more leagues followed suit with esports offerings, including the NBA2K which made its national television debut on ESPN2 in May.
Facing a dearth of content, traditional sports effectively decided to borrow from their esports brethren.
As esports properties look to open back up in a live environment, now is the time for esports borrow from the COVID-19 playbook of traditional sports – specifically, the bubble concept pulled off with remarkable success by the NBA, WNBA and NHL.
With a lack of live events since the onset of the virus, venues that can safely pivot and adapt with best-in-class health and wellness procedures – as well as ensuring a controlled environment – will be looked upon as innovators and early adapters.
“Nothing replicates the sense of community, excitement, and competition like live events,” said Greg O’Dell, president and chief executive officer of Events DC, the convention and sports authority for the nation’s capital. “We need to continue to come together as an industry to figure out best practices to bring our events and people back together safely. We need to identify opportunities for hybrid or virtual events as well as controlled event environments at first.”
Creating a safe environment for a live esports event
One upcoming esports event at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, an Events DC owned-and-operated venue, will serve as an excellent case study by adhering to all guidelines set forth by DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, the CDC and the Department of Health.
“The safety, health and COVID-related precautionary measures that we put in place are of the utmost importance to everything that we do,” said O’Dell. “It is certainly the first thing that we have thought about and we will continue to think about. Along with the Mayor, city officials, the local health department and our medical partners, we are making sure that the controlled environment that we provide upon entry is as contained as possible.”
While the District’s Phase 2 guidelines cap capacity at 50 people per room, the Convention Center is 2.3 million square feet of flexible meeting space of all sizes, from intimate rooms to expansive halls and the mid-Atlantic region’s largest ballroom. The venue provides ample opportunity for multiple stakeholders – competitors, coaches, officials, techs, media, even fans – to attend an esports event.
Events DC coordinates with the local health department and MedStar Health to ensure comprehensive COVID-19 protocols, and the Walter E. Washington Convention Center is the first convention center in the Northeast corridor to earn GBAC STAR accreditation for preeminent cleaning, disinfection and infection prevention strategies.
“Our focus is bringing operational safety procedures and cleaning standards to the next level, ensuring the wellbeing of not just attendees, but our vendors and employees,” O’Dell said. “We’ve invested a lot of resources to ensure we’re a leader in advancing safety across the convention, sports and entertainment industries.”
Proof of concept
Just as the NBA bubble in Orlando provided proof of concept for the sports industry that live events can go on safely during the pandemic, DC Paradise Jam, scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, will show the esports industry that a live event can be pulled off safely in the District. The college basketball tournament will prove Events DC is ready to host live esports competition.
For Paradise Jam, the Convention Center will be dressed up for television, fans will engage via social media, and communication between teams and the media will be strongly encouraged and supported.
“We, along with the city, are looking at Paradise Jam as that first event to show proof of concept in DC, and once that goes through without issue, it really does open up the opportunity for future events and to broaden how we go about it,” O’Dell said.
“This bubble concept has a lifeline and lifespan,” O’Dell said. “We are going to be aggressive, bullish and very focused on this bubble concept for esports next because it’s not out there yet. We are adopting this from our traditional stick-and-ball programming and experience and are very excited about presenting this option to the esports community at large.”
Innovation and adaptability.
In this age of COVID-19, industries of all types have had to deviate from their normal ways of doing business. Companies that have failed to adapt have shuttered — but those that have innovated have survived, or even thrived.
With the end of the pandemic and a return to something resembling normalcy months away, esports properties that want to re-engage in live events should seek a partner that has the innovative and adaptive qualities necessary for success.
“’Innovation and the ability to get creative and adapt are keys to putting on a safe and successful event,” said Greg O’Dell, president & chief executive officer of Events DC. “What you’re seeing here is a lot of innovation, whether it’s procuring safety protocols and lining up partnerships for the implementation of new health tools to creating a virtual studio within the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.”
Putting the client first.
A partner’s objectives are of paramount importance to Events DC.
“Our client’s goals and objectives are our highest priority,” O’Dell said. “We work hand-in-hand in partnership with our clients to identify their needs and deliver a safe and best-in-class experience.”
In the esports space, fast, reliable, and inexpensive Internet service is at the top of the list of those needs.
“The cost of Internet is a big deal to esports properties,” O’Dell said. “We’re willing to work with our partners to negotiate pricing to a place to where it works for our clients or provide value-add in another area.”
Events DC’s partnerships range from MedStar Health, which implemented comprehensive COVID-19 protocols, to the town’s major sports industry players, such as Monumental Sports & Entertainment, owner of the Wizards, Mystics, Capitals and Capital One Arena.
“Leveraging our partnerships across the city help ensure the safest and best possible environment for our event partners,” said O’Dell.
As the pandemic continues to provide unexpected challenges, being highly vigilant and nimble is vital to operating in safe and efficient ways.
“During this pandemic, there is certainly a heightened sense of awareness about cleanliness, safety, and medical oversight,” O’Dell said. “With the implementation of new, smart health and safety tools and creative hybrid event experiences, Events DC continues to serve as an industry leader in the reimagining of events and best practices, while emphasizing the utmost importance of creating a safe environment for our guests.”