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A virtual sporting world

05 May 2020 at 8:30AM

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Competitive video gaming, otherwise known as ‘esports’, has been on the rise for the past few years and many clubs, leagues and national governing bodies had started to utilise this platform as a way to engage their fans, but the widespread coronavirus disruption has meant there is now a much bigger emphasis on these types of digital engagements and it shows what live or sporting events can do to maintain competition or viewership in a new way.

With the majority of the global community in lockdown and sports events cancelled or postponed, many brands and organisers are coming up with innovative, virtual ways to keep their communities moving and engaged whilst the live events can’t take place. Virtual races, events or ‘challenges’ have also paved a new way for individuals and organisations to fundraise for many important charities and causes at this critical time.

This surge in uptake of both viewing and participating in virtual sports events is something that all of us here at Square Mile Sport have been excited by, so we’ve picked out a few of our favourites from the past month that we’ve loved watching and taking part in.

For the runners…

Mass participation events have turned to digital offerings and have in some cases created hubs where their global community of athletes can train, take on challenges and compete in virtual events – in these cases, such as with the IRONMAN Virtual Club and Rock ‘N’ Roll Running Club, athletes can log into a virtual club dashboard and track training via a wearable device or mobile APP, take part in weekly or monthly challenges, and motivate themselves and their friends to earn points and badges for rewards. Even though athletes may be exercising alone, they can still feel part of a larger community.

For the viewers…

Horse-racing appears to have been leading the way with virtual events – The ‘Virtual’ Grand National was held at the beginning of April in lieu of the UK’s biggest annual horse-race of the year. The virtual race, using computer-generated imagery (CGI), was watched live by 4.8 million viewers and raised over £2.6 million for National Health Service (NHS) Charities Together.

Similarly, in the US, with the 146th Kentucky Derby rescheduled to September, the organisers created a virtual clash, which involved the 13 horses who had successfully completed the US Triple Crown, in order to help raise US$2million for COVID-19 emergency initiatives, and the race was broadcast live on NBC on Saturday 2nd May.

The technology and interest has clearly been shown to be there for the horse-racing events and we watch with interest as to how other sports might adopt and deliver sporting contests and entertainment through these types of virtual channels.

For charities…

Live fundraising events are the lifeblood of many charities and as most, if not all, are being cancelled or postponed, innovative ideas are bringing people together and inspiring them to raise money – it is exciting to see what is possible when technology is used as a ‘force for good’. From celebrity esport competitions, to individual outdoor races/challenges, there have been numerous great examples of organisations and individuals utilising technology and, more specifically, virtual platforms to fundraise for charities and causes across the world:

#StayAtHomeSlam saw a group of tennis stars and NFL players team up with celebrities across the USA in a live-streamed Mario Tennis Aces tournament on Nintendo Switch via the Facebook Gaming page. The stars played a knock-out double’s tournament for a $1 million donation to a charity of their choice for COVID-19 relief.

The biggest annual single-day charity fundraising event in the world is the London Marathon, raising £66.4 million for the country’s charities in 2019. In order for these charities not to lose out on a large proportion of their fundraising through the postponement or cancellation of this race and hundreds of others, The 2.6 Challenge was launched on 26th April, the original date for the London Marathon. The aim was to galvanise and inspire the community to donate or fundraise whilst doing an activity based around the numbers 2.6 or 26 (i.e. the numbers involved in a marathon – 26 Miles), and the campaign so far has raised an incredible £9 million to date.

From one of sports governing body powerhouses, the English Premier League has created the ePL Invitational, football’s answer to keeping fans engaged during the suspension of the league and attracting new fans in the process by merging traditional sports and esports. All 20 Premier League clubs are involved, with a host of players, celebrities and esport players representing their teams via EA SPORTS FIFA 20 tournaments. The competition sees the prize fund being donated to the #PlayersTogether initiative, which is raising funds for National Health Service (NHS) Charities Together to aid the fight against the coronavirus crisis, whilst also encouraging supporters through the entertainment it provides to stay home, protect the NHS, and save lives.

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