Traditional athletics are still far, far more popular than esports worldwide. And if there's one reason to doubt that esports will ever rival "real" sports, its that esports have not generally appeared to draw from the same pool of viewers. While the rise of the NFL in the 1960s hooked baseball fans, and the soaring popularity of the NBA in the 1990s drew in fans of football, esports have not tended to get the attention of fans looking for more traditional sorts of competition. But the COVID-19 crisis might change that.

Baseball mitt, ball, and bat on grass.

Image source: Getty Images.

Say it ain't so

On platforms like Amazon's (AMZN 0.58%) Twitch, esports are a big deal. Every day, millions of Twitch users log on to watch their favorite players navigate the virtual worlds of video game shooters, role-playing games, digital card games, and more. Casual streams aren't the big events, though: Twitch gets the rowdiest when there are esports showdowns like League of Legends Worlds, which brought in a stunning 44 million concurrent viewers en route to netting a total of more than 100 million. Like traditional sports, esports draw huge numbers of viewers and generate significant revenues.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it unsafe for athletes to share locker rooms, play contact sports, or pass a ball to one another -- and it's even more dangerous for fans to pack stadiums and arenas that can hold tens of thousands of people at once. Following the revelation that players had been infected, the NBA suspended its season on March 12. The NHL shut down its 2019-2020 season on the same day. Also on March 12, MLB shut down its preseason spring training games. Shortly thereafter, the league put a stop to spring training itself. The scheduled date for opening day has since come and gone.

While some other nations are now starting up sports again (usually without spectators), there's not much for sports fans to watch right now -- a particularly cruel irony, given that most of us are now stuck inside with little to do besides watch TV. As we've covered previously, this makes esports the only game in town (get it?), but that might not matter much if traditional sports fans aren't drawn to video game shooters or RPGs. While esports fans may believe that esports are the only sports going on right now, that doesn't do much for those who don't consider esports to be sports in the first place. In other words, esports can't have a monopoly on sports fans unless sports fans see them as sports.

Virtually the same thing

So what's a baseball fan to do when there's no baseball? How can a NASCAR fan enjoy weekends without NASCAR races? And what can the stars and league officials involved in these sports do in order to stay relevant? After all, disappearing from the public consciousness is one of the worst things a sports league can do. It's bad for business to force fans to learn to live without their favorite teams and to let superstars disappear from TV sets and, just maybe, from the public consciousness. (These are things that sports fans are used to hearing in the contexts of strikes and lockouts that affect individual leagues.)

At least one solution to this problematic disappearing act has emerged: esports. After all, video games aren't always about shooting aliens or casting spells. Some video games are sports video games. While regular baseball isn't coming on time this year, baseball sim MLB The Show 20 arrived on time. Which begs the question: Would baseball fans who were not previously into esports watch a virtual game play out in MLB The Show 20?

They might. And they might be more likely to do so if the teams were controlled by real MLB players. That's the logic behind the MLB The Show Players League that MLB is currently promoting. Just like real life, there are 30 familiar teams and games to watch every day. The format is a little unfamiliar (each player controls his team in four games per day), and the stars aren't necessarily the biggest in baseball (Ty Buttrey instead of Mike Trout is representing the Los Angeles Angels, for example). But it's baseball-like stuff all the same (and Ty Buttrey has really brought down his walk rate in recent years), and for that, baseball fans should be grateful.

NASCAR has something similar going on. Since many NASCAR drivers already use a racing simulation platform called iRacing, it wasn't that hard for NASCAR to set up its eNASCAR iRacing series, which simulates race day, with real drivers controlling virtual cars from home. NASCAR's esports offering is remarkably similar to the real thing in that it features real NASCAR stars competing directly in a format that -- while perhaps less traditional than a real race -- is recognizable to fans of NASCAR. There are real drivers and real tactics of the sort that would be used on race day. Some (though not all) drivers control their digital cars from expensive rigs with steering wheels, seats, and other NASCAR-like touches.

There are even real controversies over the virtual crashes: Fans saw driver Bubba Wallace lose his temper following a crash. Rather amusingly, Wallace "rage quit" -- left the game -- and lost a real-life sponsor as a consequence.

NASCAR's experiment is arguably the most interesting. In addition to being more comparable to the real-life version of the sport, eNASCAR is getting a more traditional distribution. eNASCAR made it to Fox Sports, where sports fans and more casual viewers could spot it. The esports alternatives that have been dreamed up are thus far mostly airing on platforms like Amazon's Twitch, Google's (GOOG 1.06%) (GOOGL 1.08%) YouTube, and social media sites like Facebook (META -0.28%), but eNASCAR isn't limited in that way. While channels like Disney's (DIS -0.12%) ESPN have sometimes aired esports events, esports haven't gotten a ton of traditional airtime in comparison to their huge presence in streaming. Now's a great time to try, since social isolation and quarantine lifestyles are leading to more TV viewing hours (including streaming and legacy pay TV).

MLB and NASCAR aren't the only examples, either. MLS is having a virtual soccer tournament. Formula 1 has an e-racing format similar to NASCAR's. And over in Spain, sports betting platform Mondobets is partnering with another company to run a virtual soccer league for sports fans to gamble on.

The future of sporty esports

Sports video games aren't exactly like sports, obviously. Something about athletics is lost in digital translation: the athletics themselves. It's hard to imagine fans tuning in to see a digital footrace or a digital weight-lifting competition. But the tactics and strategies are all intact in these games, and the star power remains. Might fans be interested?

That remains to be seen. It's hard to imagine that huge numbers of casual fans will be tuning into platforms like Twitch, but those diehards that do will boost those platforms -- and, in all likelihood, shake up assumptions about the demographics and perspectives of Twitch viewers. Meanwhile, esports that make it to traditional TV channels (like NASCAR's eNASCAR iRacing series) could give everyone in the industry new information about how interesting such events can be to casual fans and wayward channel surfers. Tech industry natives like Twitch and YouTube won't be the only brands watching to see what sports fans watch; Disney's ESPN and other more traditional sports entertainment outlets will be tuned in, too.