Due to the ongoing pandemic, every professional sporting league has either postponed or cancelled their season to keep their players and fans safe. Since then, sports networks have been looking for ways to fill the gaps, like playing historic games in the place of live games. But many fans are still wanting.

Enter esports. Competitive gaming’s popularity has been building for a while. According to The State of Online Gaming 2020, 18-25 year olds would rather watch gamers play video games than watch sports.

This month, a game-streaming site called Twitch expects to double its viewership from December. ESPN has opted to air gaming tournaments, as part of their “Esports Day.”

But can esports take the place of the real thing?

Produced by Richard Cunningham


  • Kelli Dunlap Adjunct Instructor; American University School of Communication; @KelliNDunlap
  • Trevor Williams CEO and founder; Capitol Underground Gaming Leagues; @CapUnderground1


  • 12:32:04

    KOJO NNAMDIWith the vast majority of professional sports leagues on pause, fans need content to fill the gaps. Networks like ESPN have shifted to broadcasts of historic games to replace the lack of live content, but esports has stepped into the forefront of sports entertainment. Game-streaming sites like Twitch expect to hit two million viewers in April, nearly double their viewership from just four months ago. ESPN also now airs games of “NBA 2K,” “Rocket League” and “Fortnite” on live television, and professional athletes are hosting tournaments to raise money for charities.

  • 12:32:37

    KOJO NNAMDIThe coronavirus pandemic has contributed to esports' rise and popularity, but can it fill the gap left by professional sports, and what does its future look like? What do you think? Joining me now is Kelli Dunlap, an adjunct instructor at American University's School of Communication, and one of her specialties is game design. Kelli Dunlap, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:32:58

    KELLI DUNLAPHey, thank you so much. Nice to be here.

  • 12:32:59

    NNAMDICan you explain exactly what esports are?

  • 12:33:03

    DUNLAPSo, in broad strokes, esports are just organized video game competitions. But what we're seeing now in terms of professional athletes turning to, we're really looking at more professional competitive gaming.

  • 12:33:16

    NNAMDIDespite what parents might think, the people playing these competitive games are not just kids and teenagers. A recent report found that gamers aged 18 to 35 spend seven-and-a-half hours per week, on average, gaming. What is it about esports that makes it so engaging for players?

  • 12:33:36

    DUNLAPI mean, the engaging aspect of esports is the same thing we would find with any traditional sport, any physical sport that we might think of. An esport is something that requires a lot of teamwork and communication. And this is obviously from the player's perspective. It's incredibly stressful. There's research out there that shows the cognitive demands on esports players rival that of other sports, whether it's basketball or soccer or even chess masters. That degree of strategy and communication and teamwork is really, really key, and these athletes are under a ton of pressure.

  • 12:34:07

    DUNLAPFor people who are watching at home, it's the same thing. Like, you watch the ball and you enjoy it, because you're watching a competition happen by incredibly skilled athletes play out in front of you. And it's the same thing with esports.

  • 12:34:19

    NNAMDIAlso joining us is Trevor Williams, CEO and founder of Capitol Underground Gaming Leagues. Trevor Williams, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:34:28

    TREVOR WILLIAMSThank you for having me, Kojo. It's a pleasure.

  • 12:34:31

    NNAMDITrevor, what attracted you to esports?

  • 12:34:36

    WILLIAMSWell, it started when I was a kid. My dad was very big in gaming back in the '80s, in the arcades. And so he brought that to me and my brother, as children. And so we played games as a family all the time. It was a real bonding experience that we all did. And the interesting was that my dad used gaming as a way -- not just for fun and family time -- but also teaching us about the world, that the world's competitive, competition, how to overcome obstacles, how to improve and better your skills in a specific area.

  • 12:35:11

    WILLIAMSAnd so, to me, what draws me is the competition. I love competition. I love getting better. I love overcoming obstacles. And I love gaming. It's been a huge part of my life ever since I was a kid. I played it with my parents. I play it with my children. It's just something that's super-exciting for me.

  • 12:35:29

    NNAMDIKelli Dunlap, you've been involved in game design, and you teach in the game lab at American University. What attracted you to esports?

  • 12:35:38

    DUNLAPWell, it's kind of a similar story. I grew up playing video games for my entire life. And then when I went to college, I had a really good group of friends, and we started playing “Halo.” And we started getting really good at it. (laugh) And so, yeah, I actually competed and I've been to tournaments and things like that. And never at, like, a professional level but it's one of those things that really satisfies that itch for competition, the need to feel competent, to feel masterful, to feel skillful, to strategize, to plan, to have that really solid teamwork.

  • 12:36:10

    DUNLAPThere's just something really, you know, magic and amazing when you pull off some stunt that allows you to capture the flag from the enemy base and get it back to your base, and they never even know what hit them. And it's the same excitement that I got from playing soccer all my life, it just was inside.

  • 12:36:25

    NNAMDIWell, clearly, there's a lot of creativity involved there. Is that what got you involved in game design, the creative aspect of this?

  • 12:36:32

    DUNLAPWell, actually, what brought me to game design was -- so, before I went into game design, I got my doctorate in clinical psychology. And I've always been fascinated in the psychology of games for players and games as designers. And the field of psychology, especially when I was going through, had some issues with research.

  • 12:36:49

    DUNLAPAnd I decided, like, hey, you know what? If I'm going to study videogames, I should know how to make them. Not just play them, but just also make them. And so that brought me into the games design program, which I graduated out of, and then continued to make and teach.

  • 12:37:01

    NNAMDITrevor Williams, are esports an alternative to traditional sports?

  • 12:37:07

    WILLIAMSWell, they certainly can be. And especially during times like this, where everything regarding sports is up in the air. We don't know when everything's coming back. Like you said before, there's that need, that itch for sports, to watch it. You know, you can watch reruns, but right now, what I think esports and sports have a great opportunity in doing is connecting the two audiences together.

  • 12:37:32

    WILLIAMSThe best example I can give probably right now is recently “F1,” which is “Formula 1,” held an eNASCAR-iRacing Pro Invitational Series which brought simulated races stacked with real live current and past Hall of Fame drivers. And that alone received 1.3 million viewers on FOX and FS1, making it one of the most viewed esports events in U.S. TV history.

  • 12:37:57

    WILLIAMSSo, that right there, in a nutshell, can just show how much people are feinding for some kind of sports action. And, you know, the specific thing with racing and "Formula 1” is the contrast between real life and the game are so close, I honestly don't believe most people even could tell the difference.

  • 12:38:20

    NNAMDITrevor, you are the CEO of Capitol Underground Leagues. Can you tell us a little bit about what your organization does?

  • 12:38:26

    WILLIAMSOf course. Of course. So, we actually have two. One we recently started working on is Esport Centric Technologies and Capitol Underground Gaming are the two that we have right now. But, in a nutshell, we provide programs, products and services to companies, governments, organizations and local communities interested in benefitting from the exponential growth in esports. So, some of our past clients have been e2k and the Mystics, GameStop. And, more recently, we've been working with the Maryland Innovation Center and creating an esports program for Howard County.

  • 12:39:01

    NNAMDIKelli Dunlap, you have been tracking how social distancing affects engagement in esports. What have you found?

  • 12:39:10

    DUNLAPSo, it's interesting, because on one hand, esports is incredibly popular, even without social distancing. I mean, the 2019 League of Legends Grand Finals had more viewers than the Super Bowl that year. So, esports aren't new, and they are very, very popular. But what I'm seeing in terms of trends is there are audiences that look at physical sports -- so like football and soccer and basketball. And there is some overlap between people who watch traditional sports and those who watch esports, but there's not a whole lot of overlap.

  • 12:39:42

    DUNLAPAnd that's typically what we're seeing, is there's a move from individuals who maybe haven't ever considered esports before, maybe never even heard of it. And now because the players that they like and the teams that they follow are hopping on to play a quick game, or they're doing a charity event, or they're actually competing, like in the “F1” example, esports is getting an influx of attention. The first esports tournament was in 1972, I believe. So, it's been there and it's very popular, but I think it's getting a wave of new interest now, which is really exciting.

  • 12:40:18

    NNAMDITrevor, have you seen an increase in engagement since social distancing has been enforced?

  • 12:40:24

    WILLIAMSWe have. We have. But, you know, everyone's staying home for the most part. People are getting anxious. They don't know what to do, and gaming has been that go-to as a form of entertainment. So, with all the social distancing and the stay-at-home orders in a lot of states, the most engaging thing people can do is either online tournaments, social play days and playing online with friends in competitions. That has had a huge uptick across the board.

  • 12:40:55

    WILLIAMSSo, for us, we've been playing a lot of “Call of Duty: Warzone” and “Apex Legends” with our community and interacting that way. So, it's still a way to engage, have fun and, you know, you don't miss a beat, playing games digitally.

  • 12:41:13

    NNAMDITrevor, how has COVID-19 changed the way you do business?

  • 12:41:19

    WILLIAMSWe've had to postpone or reschedule a lot of events that we do, as much as the industry has done already. We've been working with clients remotely and trying to still provide the same services that we would do without the virus. But we've been able to do some of the community work that we enjoy doing. Recently we had plans to work with a nonprofit, the Brothers Program, which is the brothers reaching out to help each reach success, which one of my mentors run, and I'm an alumni of.

  • 12:41:57

    WILLIAMSAnd so what we were trying to do is provide necessary groceries and things that these young men are struggling to get during this time. And with everything going on with COVID and the social distancing and the lockdown orders, we just have not been able to do what we like to do. One of the primary things we like to do is combine esports with community. And community is a big aspect to what we do. And with, staying at home, we can't really give that full commitment that we would like during this time.

  • 12:42:31

    WILLIAMSIt has accelerated our strategies on remote organizing and remote capabilities, you know, having team meetings while we're playing games or organizing virtual tournaments. But the social aspect, engaging with the community in a person-to-person way is something that is sorely missing during this time.

  • 12:42:50

    NNAMDIKelli Dunlap, there has long been a stigma attached to gaming for children and adults. Can you give us the backstory there?

  • 12:42:59

    DUNLAPSo, pretty much for as long as videogames have been around, there has been this idea that either one, they're just for children, and therefore frivolous, pointless, useless activity. They rot your brain. The same kind of arguments that we've heard about television kind of followed over to videogames. But the average gamer today is in their 30s. And the split between men and women who are playing is pretty much equal, depending on, like, what kind of genre you're looking at.

  • 12:43:28

    DUNLAPAnd so this idea that a gamer is someone who stayed at home and is in their parents' basement and has poor social skills is just patently untrue. You know, there are more people in the U.S. -- over, I think, 60 percent was the latest number -- who play games regularly.

  • 12:43:45

    DUNLAPAnd it's just a global phenomenon. People are putting hundreds and hundreds -- I think globally 2 billion hours of gaming that we're doing as a human culture every single week. And it's absolutely amazing, and so I'm so glad that we're moving away from this idea that games are somehow bad or, videogames in particular, are harmful or detrimental.

  • 12:44:08

    DUNLAPAnd we're really seeing them in this time as what they really are, which is an avenue for connection, for social interaction to feel like, you know, your actions matter, that you are agentic, and that you can have skills to get better at things and to really work on yourself in a positive way, which is, you know, what us, as gamers, have been saying for a long time. But I think more people are getting to see that now.

  • 12:44:31

    NNAMDIIs that changing also because now there are professional leagues and tournaments organized around esports?

  • 12:44:39

    DUNLAPWell, I mean, again, there's been professional leagues for over two decades. And that's just in the U.S. You know, if you want to go to someplace like South Korea, they've been having professional leagues for much, much longer than that. There have been esports leagues pretty much as long as we've been able to, you know, hook internet cables up to one another and have LAN parties.

  • 12:44:58

    DUNLAPSo, it's more -- I think it's getting more attention now, because it is more mainstream. There's more people watching. There's more people playing than ever before. And, honestly, the internet is better than it's ever been, so, you know, you can do these large-scale events. You can do small-scale events. You can really network with people regardless of where they are in the world and not have to worry as much in the past of things like lag or latency or things like that.

  • 12:45:22

    NNAMDITrevor Williams, in your view what does the future of esports look like?

  • 12:45:29

    WILLIAMSThe future of esports, well, I have -- maybe sound crazy to some, but honestly, I believe that esports will outtake sports within the next 15 to 20 years. I think esports is only growing in popularity. Gaming, in general, we have over 2 billion gamers in the world. And the more we head into a digital world -- as seen especially during this current crisis -- you'll see an uptick in gaming tournaments, gaming interaction, gaming activations, and companies getting into sponsoring and supporting esports as a main driver for their businesses.

  • 12:46:15

    WILLIAMSI think the sky's the limit with esports and, you know, you can see it can be used for different -- almost anything. One prime example is the U.S. Army. Now, the U.S. Army has been using it as a leveraging to increase recruitment. And they understand that esports has transferrable skills to the real world, teamwork, communication, quick decision-making, critical thinking, problem-solving.

  • 12:46:44

    WILLIAMSI think you're going to start seeing a lot of esports being incorporated into educational programs. Colleges have already created scholarships for it. You're going to see gaming incorporated to almost every facet of society, music, movies, pretty much everything.

  • 12:47:02

    NNAMDIKelli Dunlap, experts say that the ongoing pandemic can cause anxiety and increased stress. Well, we know that for sure. What effects can gaming have on mental health?

  • 12:47:13

    DUNLAPSo, by and large, 99.99 percent of the time, there are no ill effects, which is probably the most common misconception. The vast majority of people who are playing games are doing it because it's something that they enjoy. It is something that they find relaxing, or it gives them a break from whatever anxieties they may be dealing with.

  • 12:47:31

    DUNLAPAgain, the vast majority of people who play games do so socially. Either they're playing with someone on the couch right next them, they're playing with someone, you know, online, who they know, meeting new people, hanging out with friends and making those kinds of special connections.

  • 12:47:45

    DUNLAPIn terms of -- there is concern -- I think we hear a lot about stuff like gaming disorder, which is a highly contentious topic in my field of clinical psychology. And so there's kind of a belief that games have some inherent thing in them that is bad for you. Either they make you violent or they can become addictive. And, you know, from looking at the research, it's just either not true, or the research isn't there. There's not enough to support that.

  • 12:48:15

    DUNLAPSo, in terms of how videogames are impacting your mental health, if you're using games to meet those basic needs of, you know, connection and community and competence and to feel skillful and to, you know, take a break from kind of the dumpster fire (laugh) of the world around us, you know, it's probably going to be beneficial for you.

  • 12:48:34

    DUNLAPThat said, if you're finding that games are really the only thing that getting you up in the morning, and that you're having trouble regulating how much you play, or if they're making you angry and you're playing even though you don't feel like you want to, it might be time to check in with a mental health professional, in some capacity. Because it's not that the game itself is doing these things, but it may be that you're using the game to cope with the anxiety that you're experiencing.

  • 12:49:00

    NNAMDIA listener tweets: Unpopular opinion, let's not give gaming the recognition of sport. The physical aspect separates games in general from the more specific category of sport. Sure, gamers must practice, have mental endurance and compete, but so do academics and beauty contestants. What would you say in response to that, Kelli Dunlap?

  • 12:49:22

    DUNLAPWait, I'm sorry, did he just compare -- or that person just compare esports to a beauty competition?

  • 12:49:27

    NNAMDISure did.

  • 12:49:28

    DUNLAPOkay. (laugh) Wow. That kind of absurdity is king of hard to respond to. I think it comes down to your definition of sport. There are different definitions out there. And, I mean, again, from the research that has looked at the physiological conditioning that esports athletes do at the top levels, it is equivalent to what maybe a tennis player does or even a soccer player or a football, not an American football player. But like the...

  • 12:49:56

    NNAMDISure, soccer. Mm-hmm.

  • 12:49:57

    DUNLAPYeah, the mental intensity, the physical regiment that these players are under. Like, if you take a picture of an esports event, the players on the screen, they're not this overweight ideal of what a gamer is. They have nutritionists. They have sports psychologists.

  • 12:50:14


  • 12:50:14

    DUNLAPThey have exercise regiments. Like in order for them to be...

  • 12:50:17

    NNAMDI(overlapping) We don't have a lot of time left, Kelli, but...

  • 12:50:19

    DUNLAPSorry, go ahead.

  • 12:50:19

    NNAMDI...in the next 30 seconds or so can you tell us a little bit about what the Game Lab at American University is?

  • 12:50:24

    DUNLAPSure. The Game Lab at American University has two parts. We have the studio, where we help local businesses create games with a social impact focus. And we also have a Master's program, where we bring in students and we teach the component of game design from a kind of social impact perspective and help them go out into the world to be the best game designers they can be.

  • 12:50:47

    NNAMDIKelli Dunlap is an adjunct instructor at American University School of Communication. Trevor Williams is CEO and founder of Capitol Underground Gaming Leagues. Thank you both for joining us. Coming up tomorrow, starting a family in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, a midwife takes your questions about hospital safety, homework and family support at a very tricky time.

  • 12:51:04

    NNAMDIPlus, schools across the region are closed and school districts are scrambling. We'll find out exactly how they'll continue teaching. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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