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Like everyone else in esports, Electronic Arts has been forced to pivot to digital events because of the coronavirus.

While esports companies have had to withdraw from traditional esports, EA and others have shifted their efforts to online-only events in the near term. With the likes of pro baseball and hoops canceled, esports has an opportunity to gain some more attention as sports fans search for new ways to get their sports fixes.

The question is whether this all-digital world will become the new normal for esports, as it isn’t clear when physical events will resume.

Even without much physical esports revenue, Newzoo estimates that global esports will generate $1 billion in revenues in 2020, with China ranking as the top market.

EA has launched a “Stay Home. Play Together” campaign to draw attention to its Apex Legends, FIFA, and Madden NFL competitions. Apex Legends has tripled its average minute audience (AMA) viewership in the past month. The NFL Checkdown x Madden NFL program, where some of the top NFL players went head-to-head over two days, saw the highest AMA of any Madden NFL 20 tournaments to date.

And EA has partnered with over 30 broadcast stations around the world including ESPN, NBC Sports, Sky Sports, Telemundo, and NFL Network. Specifically for Stay and Play, Madden has appeared on Fox Sports and ESPN2, Apex Legends on Twitch and YouTube, and FIFA in more than 115 territories including ESPN, Telemundo, Sky, and TSN.

Also, more people are playing and forming grassroots esports leagues. EA said it wants to push esports into the mainstream by becoming the gateway to competitive gaming and esports fandom. EA and/or licensed EA partners operate an estimated 100 tournaments across its franchises annually and it is seeing an uptick in people playing and forming grassroots esports leagues.

For the FIFA Stay and Play Cup, EA saw U.S. viewership of 3.8 million on ESPN (includes 12 total airings on ESPN/ESPN2 across five broadcast days).

I spoke with Todd Sitrin, the senior vice president and general manager of the competitive gaming division at EA, about the shift to all-digital events.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Todd Sitrin is SVP and GM of the competitive gaming division at EA

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi/GamesBeat

GamesBeat: I wanted to catch up on what EA’s been doing on the esports side, going digital.

Todd Sitrin: Obviously there’s been a lot of change in the world, with mandated shelter-in-place around the world. Initially a lot of the industry, including EA, just took the approach of postponing some things, cancelling some things, but holding on to the construct that we had wanted to execute on. We made a decision here about a month ago to pivot to a completely different plan, based on the fact that we were getting quite a lot of intelligence from our organization on what the world was likely to look like in terms of people traveling, people not coming together in groups. We pivoted to a model which is fully online.

The first thing we had to do, which was a huge challenge–we made a policy decision that we would not execute any events, broadcasting events, unless 100 percent of everyone involved — the competitors, the on-air talent, and the broadcast production team — was at home, separated from everyone else, in order to execute. That required technology that had never been assembled in, to our knowledge, anywhere in the broadcast industry. Not just esports, but the broadcast industry. The stuff that you’re seeing broadcast today, to our knowledge, still requires people to go into a broadcast studio and provide that type of support. We felt that was not in keeping with EA’s commitment to having people stay at home.

In order to do that, we had to create what we believe is the first fully cloud-based broadcast platform and workflow. It allows 100 percent of all people involved in a competition broadcast to do it from home. That took us several weeks to create. We started in early March. We did our first broadcast using that technology on March 24 with an Apex Legends online broadcast. We’ve continued to improve that, and we now have a very robust technology solution that lives up to that policy of having everyone be 100 percent remote. We’re very proud of that. That’s allowed us to create plans that take into consideration fully online competition.

GamesBeat: What else is happening?

Sitrin: The other thing that’s come about, obviously, is that in the world right now, it’s a very unusual circumstance. You have your population, the public, sitting at home with a lot more hours of time than they normally would have. You have a lot of broadcast partners and platforms and networks that no longer have as much content as they did. Hollywood is shut down. There’s no production in New York or London or anywhere around the world for traditional entertainment. In terms of sports entertainment, there’s no live competition. Turn on ESPN or Fox Sports and you find decades-old rebroadcasts of contests, many of them in standard definition. That’s all they have to put out there. The third thing that’s happening is that people who are famous for things other than playing video games all of a sudden have a lot more time on their hands, because they’re not producing out of Hollywood or playing their traditional sports.

We’ve assembled a set of competitions that are allowing us to get to a mainstream audience that has become available as a result of the current situation. That takes the form of three levels of competitions for us. At the highest, most open part of the funnel in what we’re doing, it’s about fun competitions that leverage people who have fame outside of esports. Whether that be professional footballers, professional athletes of any type, or celebrities out of Hollywood, we can introduce esports to a much broader audience by leveraging those known personalities.

Over the last month and a half now we’ve executed a ton of these fun celebrity-driven executions. We did one a little over a week, maybe two weeks ago now, one of our largest, was the FIFA 20 Stay and Play Cup, which involved 20 footballers from 20 of the most prestigious clubs in Europe playing over five days. That was broadcast into more than 100 countries via television, as well as of course on global digital platforms. We saw a tremendous amount of engagement and audience from that opening-up type of action.

Above: The FIFA 20 Stay and Play Cup drew millions of viewers.

Image Credit: EA

GamesBeat: What’s unique here?

Sitrin: What’s unique about what EA is doing, and I’ve talked about this in the past, we’ve always been focused on making esports more accessible. What’s happening now in the current time, obviously we can get distribution to a broader audience. But what makes it unique is the accessibility of our esports. Whether it’s FIFA or Madden or FIFA Online in Asia, these are esports that draw a strong connection to real-world sports. It makes it easy for viewers who have very little contact with esports previous to now–it gives them the ability to understand what’s going on. They understand the sports they follow, American football or European football. They understand the virtual players. They have an emotional connection.

That’s why, for the Stay and Play Cup, we aligned with the most popular football clubs in Europe. We’re able to draw on that tribal nature. I’m a fan of Chelsea and Chelsea’s not playing right now, but I go to their site and I’m on their mailing list and I’m on their social channels. I can root for Chelsea. I’m just rooting for Chelsea in a different way. That was a big entryway in making it more accessible for people to come in.

We know, though, that we have to continue to move people down to the authentic esports competitions that involve just the very best players in the world, who have fame, but their fame comes from playing video games. We’re very intentional about trying to expose that broad audience–now, how do we expose them to the next layer down? The way we do that, we start to combine celebrity with authenticity. You may have seen the execution with the MLS, the EMLS that’s going on right now. It’s a five-week competition. We’re taking a celebrity pro athlete from an MLS team, say the L.A. Galaxy, and they’re playing on a team with the L.A. Galaxy esports professional. The two of them are playing together against another team in the MLS that’s similarly set up. We’re taking some of that authenticity from the best esports players and marrying that together with the broad reach that a famous footballer can bring.