This article was initially published in June

When a global pandemic hits; when it rips apart society as we know it and changes things on an unprecedented level a quick game of FIFA probably isn’t the first thing on most people’s minds.

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Yet over the past few months video games have further cemented their place as a pivotal part of today’s culture and, in a world shut down by a virus, they offer far more than just a quick dopamine hit.

Now they have become a way to switch off from the outside world, an escape to forget what is happening in a world that feels far more determined than ever to destroy itself.

No game signifies the ability of video games to take you away from reality like Football Manager. The long-running management simulation series is notorious for the hours people spend in their alternative universes.

“Anyone who plays it knows how immersive it is.” Football Manager PR Manager Tom Davidson tells Eurosport.

You do completely believe what you’re doing is real life and you make your decisions accordingly.

At the onset of the lockdown Football Manager quickly moved to offer the game for free for one week, an offer that rapidly became two, when so many people took up the opportunity to begin their own careers within the game.

Davidson, who is managing Inter Milan during lockdown, explains the rationale behind the decision:

We decided pretty quickly after it became apparent that this was going to happen that we wanted to try, if nothing else, to give people a way to be entertained during this period. It’s an incredibly difficult time and it’s something that none of us have ever experienced before. So to try and make it a bit easier for people we wanted to give them the opportunity to try the game and play it.

“Anyone who plays it knows what a great passer of time and distraction it is. It’s been so positive to see that it’s been so popular with new players and that we’ve seen so many players coming back to the series. It was meant to be an initial period of a week but we decided pretty early on into the first free week we wanted to extend it into two.

“Our peak concurrency record (amount of people playing the game at any one time) before this time was around 82,000 people and now we’re up to 189,000 people.”

Football Manager is a game that demonstrates perfectly the way video games can be used to lose oneself in a medium. But if anything what this situation has shown us is that video games can be so much more...

A social base

Ever since their inception, video games have had the power to bring people together. It’s just that in the past it would be you and your friends in the attic huddled around one screen. Nowadays you can pretty much play any game, with anyone else in the world, at any given time.

It has allowed friends and family to keep in contact during lockdown and watching it evolve as a social construct during this period has been fascinating.

One company that has really capitalised on this phenomenon is Zwift, the virtual cycling platform that allows users to ride the world from their home. Zwift is more than a way to train and keep fit, it allows users to ride in groups, or even compete against the pros.

“It’s a social media platform that connects people all over the world but it’s got this extra dimension that you’re keeping active.” Matt Stephens, Eurosport commentator and Zwift ambassador, explains.

They’ve built an enormous community and in these difficult times it has become even more relevant where people that otherwise would be meeting up in real life can meet up virtually and ride with each other and keep in contact via the Zwift platform.

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One of Zwift’s best features is the ability to race in a group, but turn on the ability to prevent anyone from being dropped. That means that no matter how hard one member of the group is working everyone can stay together. It allows friends to ride together even if they are of wildly different skill levels.

That feature works for the professionals just as much as regular fans.

“I’ve been getting involved with the onlines, sort of racing Zwift, riding Zwift, meeting up with guys on there with the rest of the team, meeting up with Adam on there, and it’s been like that for the last seven or eight weeks or whatever it is.” Mitchelton-Scott rider Simon Yates told my Eurosport colleague Tom Bennett recently.

It’s easy to forget that for professional athletes their team is their lifeline. Friends and family play an important role, of course, yet athletes sacrifice so much that they form a kind of familial bond with their team-mates. You only need to look at Michael Jordan’s minor league baseball stint, documented in The Last Dance to understand how isolated and insulated professional teams can be. That has been taken away from them, things like Zwift or FIFA can help provide that much-needed social contact.

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But there’s more to it than that.

More than fun and games

Rule of thumb would suggest that if a person is competitive in one area of their life they are often competitive in most, if not all, areas of their life. Professional athletes are an excellent example.

However that presents a problem during lockdown. Part of what separates athletes from the rest of us mere mortals is that competitive edge, but it is difficult to exercise that during a situation like this.

That’s where gaming comes in. It might not be the perfect replacement for competitive sports but it’s pretty good.

Take Andy Murray for example. Murray was invited to take part in the virtual Mutua Madrid Open which replaced the real tournament and he ended up winning the whole thing. If you have any doubt about how events like that can help scratch the competitive itch just look at Murray’s reaction to winning.

Murray downs Goffin to win virtual Madrid Open title

Want further proof? Here’s Feliciano Lopez talking to the Eurosport Tennis Legends Podcast about Murray before the tournament.

Andy’s so competitive he’s already been practising for a week since the first day we sent him the game.

“The issue was that he was trying to download the game and for some reason he couldn’t. Then he said, ‘Feli I am trying to download the game, and for some reason I cannot.’

“So I called a guy, a technical guy trying to speak to Andy to solve the problem and finally he said ‘you know it’s not so expensive the game, I will buy the game myself and I will start practicing.’”

'I'll buy the game!' - Lopez tells amusing Murray virtual tennis story

It’s not just Murray, on the same podcast episode Elina Svitolina was asked about her preparation as well as that of her boyfriend Gael Monfils.

Gael is pretty much playing PlayStation all the time! Svitolina replied. So I have to create my own routine and sometimes he joins me to keep me motivated.

And it’s not just the tennis players either, Stephens said he’s heard from Team Ineos rider Rohan Dennis about how much it is helping him.

“He [Dennis] likes to compete and you can train as hard as you want but there’s nothing like when you have a finish line - be that in the real world or the virtual world.” Stephens told Eurosport.

“I think Zwift offers that competitive element that they wouldn't normally have and a lot of riders like even, if they are new to it. It’s that competitive element that they thrive on.”

Former professional Bernhard Eisel told a similar story during a video diary for Eurosport during lockdown.

“I can tell you that the riders really love it [Zwift racing]. Nico Roche of Team Sunweb told me that he prepared five weeks for it. This race gave him the motivation to do 20-30 hours on the turbo and not to go crazy in his apartment.”

Eisel: eSports a great addition to the calendar

A nod to the future?

So is this something that we can expect to see more of in the future?

Plenty of the athletes competing have spoken about their surprise at the levels involved. By Yates’ own admission “they’re tough [the races], they’re really tough, they are very intense. You have to go there ready to race or you’ll be out the back pretty quick, but I’ve been enjoying it and it’s been a good distraction from not being able to race properly outside.”

Plus as Eisel pointed out in his diary “the best part of e-cycling competitions is you can participate and you can test yourself against the pros, this is where the value is.”

Look, the demands on professional gamers/streamers are real, let’s make that very clear. The work these people put in is no joke. Professionals are gaming for eight-ten hours a day at times and have to be at the peak of their physical fitness to stay sharp. On the streaming side of things as well as usually being decent gamers these people have to be adept video editors, promoters and entertainers, that is extremely hard.

Yet still it’s difficult to shake the idea that professional athletes are doing more, perhaps it’s a debate over physical vs. mental exertions. But the virtual world levels the playing field, you’re still not likely to beat Chris Froome in a race on Zwift but you’re certainly more likely than if you had a race on the road.

Legendary Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten also spoke with Eurosport recently and she alluded to something as much.

“I think online racing you can cheat a bit so I prefer the racing outside,” Van Vleuten told Eurosport colleague Tom Bennett.

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But training inside with the online platforms actually surprised me. I was the kind of person who hated to be on the trainer and I have to say with the online platforms it’s fun.

It’s fun. That’s why people love doing it. Our minds adore the dopamine hits that come with gamified content, it’s why video gaming has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry and why we’ve seen those concepts used so widely in sport.

However there are some things gaming will always struggle to replicate.

By his own admission Formula E driver Mitch Evans isn’t much of a gamer, but he told Eurosport that it is a completely “different story when you get into real cars,” a stark comparison that can exist even when comparing virtual platforms.

“We use simulators a lot but they’re a completely different level to the one we’re using for the e-series anyone can buy them.

It’s great from that side of things because people all around the world can race against you on different platforms but the one we use for race prep is a different beast, that’s a multi-million dollar piece of equipment.

“It’s bespoke for our Jaguar Formula E car, every component we have on the car is identical to what you would have in the sim.”

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Stoffel Vandoorne, former F1 driver and Evans’ fellow Formula E competitor agrees, telling Eurosport “The F1 game for example is nice and looks very, very good visually, but in terms of the physics, in terms of the car handling, I wouldn’t say that it is realistic.

“Obviously with the team simulators you literally have the same cockpit, the same chassis, the same steering as in your real racing car. It’s all at a much higher level let’s say and everything is modelled way, way better, so it’s the actual car model that is in there, which gets it a 100% closer to reality.

“But for sure, the big thing we are always missing on these simulators is the G forces that are very, very hard to replicate, so it will always feel a bit like a game I would say.”

But as Vandoorne points out the interaction he can have with his fans on a platform like Twitch is something completely unique, and that could be the USP for these products staying around, and growing.

“Is Esports the future in cycling?” Asks Eisel. “No. Cycling is much more, crashing, bad weather, bad luck, drama,

But esports is definitely a great addition and a great value for our sport, especially if you want to test yourselves against the pros.

That is the difference. When facing a professional player on FIFA, racing them on Zwift or challenging them on a sim racing game, there is a unique interaction that would otherwise be impossible. An athlete’s digital presence is more important than ever and for that reason gaming is always going to be important.

An vital lifeline or a worrying indictment?

Are Esports the future? In this author’s eyes yes, but perhaps not in the way you are thinking.

Esports are never going to fully replace sports, it doesn’t matter what you can make Lionel Messi do on FIFA it will never be as impressive as what he can on the pitch in real life.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for them in their own right.

What this lockdown has shown is that plenty of people don’t want to watch Esports. The numbers in general have been good but some who work within the industry might privately admit that they haven’t been able to capitalise on the lack of live sport in the way they may have thought at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

But that’s okay, they have still made a dent in the market share, and by doing so they have continued the upwards trajectory that has defined the last few years. More and more of the younger generation are going to grow up and want to watch their favourite streamers rather than their favourite athletes.

For some, that is a reason to despair, for others it’s the start of exciting new opportunities. Which side you come down on will largely be down to your generation realistically, despite members either side of the age divide who belong to 'the other side'.

However if children are the future then the industry has to be alert to this new reality. There’s a small chance that fans in stadiums might never come back, but there’s real chance that we will go through similar situations to this on multiple occasions in the future. If that happens expect more people to lose interest in high-level sport, we’re rapidly seeing how important fans are to the overall product on offer.

And that is what sport is; just an entertainment product. We love it but we must not forget it is no more than that. If more people want to watch Esports and professional or recreational gamers, that is where the money and jobs will go. There will always be a place for sport, but complacency can topple any giant, no matter the size.

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