With 2020 comes an unprecedented sports season, as venues sit empty and Americans consume sports media at home. Experience design can make or break team sports this year.
When the news of a global pandemic hit earlier this year, millions of Americans thought COVID-19 would leave sports relatively unaffected. It’s a $471 billion industry with a growth trajectory that was going nowhere but up pre-COVID-19. How vulnerable could the NFL be? Or the NBA, even with their own player bubble?
Today, we’re watching in disbelief as MMA matches take place in eerily quiet stadiums with coaches and referees wearing masks and gloves. The Summer Olympics got pushed to next year, and the NBA, NHL and MLB seasons were put on hold. The coronavirus has spared no industry, and the sports industry isn’t immune.
At the rate that the pandemic is continuing, any leagues that don’t cancel games may be forced to hold them behind closed doors. Not selling tickets to major league games is unheard-of, but so is the implication of what could happen if you confine a few thousand fans to a stadium in the middle of a pandemic.
Experience design is the process of optimizing an experience so that it provides quality and cultural value, providing what every consumer wants. It’s about to become very, very important to the major sports leagues as their entire fan experience model begins to evolve. As sporting experiences change and evolve, pre-planning and strong communication will become critical.
eSports reported a 31% increase in March, sparking interest by traditional sports leagues
Twitch, the major streaming platform for eSports, saw a 31% viewership increase during the first month of quarantine. The major attractions on Twitch include competitions for games like Blizzard’s Overwatch or Riot Games’ League of Legends.
These games sell out massive stadiums — including Madison Square Garden — just like traditional sports, but unlike football, it’s easy to take them back online where they began. The competitive scene for League of Legends went online-only without missing more than a few days of the season, and so did the Overwatch League.
If League of Legends players can get through a tournament-level game in a stadium barren of fans, so can conventional sports teams.
As eSports leagues adapted to global travel and quarantine restrictions, traditional sports leagues took note. Formula 1 set the leading example by replacing all of their canceled and postponed in-person races with the F1 eSports Virtual Grand Prix events, during which fans tuned in to see their favorite drivers compete in the F1 2020 video game via racing simulator rigs installed at the drivers’ homes from a distance.
Social distancing is forcing a season that sports fans won’t forget
The simplest solution is daily athlete testing, quarantining players during the season and finding new ways to enable viewers that don’t put live fans in the stadium. However, kicking fans out of the stadium affects more than just those who would have bought a ticket.
Fans in the stadium help create audience engagement for the people at home. If you’ve watched MMA since it came back on, it’s strange to hear the sounds of the sport without the screams of the fans. It’s harder to get engaged as a viewer, which affects the fan experience. We crave the melodic excitement of an audience singing “Sweet Caroline” at the start of a baseball game, or the sounds of furious away fans when our home team scores.
On online sports communities like Reddit, fans are vocal about their worries for the upcoming football season. They worry that the changing experience will have an effect on team morale and performance. There’s a reason for the persistent belief that home teams win more games than away teams.
This is how experience design could transform sports this year
It’s time for sports brands to dig deep to find engagement in new parts of the fan experience. NASCAR and Formula 1 filled the gap with live virtual races in which racers never came into direct contact with each other or fans. Some of the online engagement tactics that they used for eSports racing have carried over into their sans-audience physical races.
Even without direct contact between fans and athletes, the need for human connection in sports exists. Experience design can bring new routes for fans to connect with sports, including:
Direct-to-consumer services: When televised events are canceled or postponed, it’s important to offer alternate routes of entertainment for sports viewers. That can include broadcasting past games, airing sports podcasts or commentary shows, or curating feel-good sports movies. This keeps fans engaging in the sport even when there isn’t a fresh game to see.
Gamified viewership: Gamifying content is a surefire way to keep viewers engaged. Repeated viewing can unlock features like viewing from new angles, unlocking replays of moments on demand, player tracking, analytics, probabilities, and even built-in fantasy games or betting.
Virtual live viewing: In many ways, virtual live viewing can be a more fan-first experience than a real live game. The experience design opportunities are endless. Virtual live games could broadcast 3D visualizations, stats and facts about players, and other data geared toward the viewer and his preferences.
Experience design can make or break the new sporting experience
What’s most important is that sports brands remember that the sports experience is attention- and access-driven right now. You can’t bring your fans to you, but what can you do to bring the game to the fans virtually? How can you bring them a virtual value that’s not possible in the traditional sports model?
Without a doubt, millions of sports fans want to see everything go back to normal so we don’t have to find out what the Super Bowl is like in an empty stadium. But in reality, the sports industry could be disrupted for months or longer, enough for the world to see a new evolution of sports viewing and fan participation.
In the meantime, sports brands need to think about the best way to bring value to fans while the stadium doors stay closed. Be open to hearing what’s working, what’s not, what they’d like to see, and how they’d like to see it. (The answer may be “I want to come back!” from many, but others will let you know what they think about gamified streaming or virtual live viewing.
At The ExperienceBuilt Group, we build experiences from the ground up. ExperienceBuilt brands are created with audience engagement in mind, so you can bring genuine value to their experience. After COVID-19, it’s more important than ever to build a business that connects with people. Learn more about the LIVE 8 Experience Design Principles and how they apply!