Australia

Video games were a hit during the coronavirus lockdown, but will they maintain their appeal?

Riad Chikhani has always had an interest in video games, so much so that he built a successful small business where he is constantly immersed in the latest industry news, trends and inside scoops.

His Sydney-based Gamurs Group oversees several websites devoted to global eSports, which have all seen a noticeable increase in traffic as millions of people around the world were forced into some form of coronavirus lockdown in the past few months.

“We saw an uptick in our content consumption, time spent on the website, and also an increase in the Google searches that we were competing on,” he told SBS News.

“With more people turning towards Twitch and YouTube for their entertainment, they are also turning to us for their content consumption when it’s related to video games and eSports.”

Riad Chikhani with his colleagues at the Gamurs Group Sydney office.

SBS News

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, eSports, or competitive video gaming, had already grown to become a billion-dollar global industry, offering lucrative prizes to competition winners.

But with major sporting codes in Australia and around the world forced to suspend their games, it began to fill the void for many couch sport fans. Big names in Formula One and the NBA were among many sporting athletes to compete virtually, further adding to the attraction of eSports.

“When sports can’t be relied on for the sort of content consumption and entertainment, eSports comes in and sort of fills that gap,” Mr Chikhani said.

“With sporting codes turning to eSports to begin bridging that gap between the viewer and the actual content they can provide, we are seeing huge validation for eSport as a legitimate competition and legitimate entertainment industry.

“[But] eSports have never needed the validation of sport, or industries, in and of itself. It’s a huge industry that’s rapidly growing. But what this has shown is that eSport is a real competitor and it’s here to stay.”

Twitch, a live-streaming platform dedicated to broadcasting video game competitions, saw more than 1.5 million people tuning in from around the world at any given time.

The US-based company told SBS News that there were also “record-high levels of engagement in streamers, viewers, and hours watched”, and in the four weeks since social distancing began it saw a 57 per cent increase in hours watched compared to the four weeks prior.

And the boost has been felt across all parts of the industry.

League of Legends Mid-Season Cup

Screen shot taken from the League of Legends Mid-Season Cup Grand Final

Getty Images North America

“The expectation overall is that this year is going to be a good year,” senior analyst at market research company IBIS World Liam Harrison told SBS News.

“In particular since quarantine has started, a lot of major companies have reported strong revenue growth, they’ve reported strong numbers, at least the start of the quarantine period,” he said.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that there was an increase across demographics in Australia not usually associated with playing video games.

“I imagine older folks who previously haven’t known this was a possibility in games, that you could use games to improve your fitness, that you could use games to be social,” Steven Conway, a senior lecturer in games and interactivity at Swinburne University, told SBS News.

Dr Conway said it is not surprising video games have become quite successful during a global pandemic.

“People are feeling a deficit… they don’t feel in control, they don’t know what they can do to stop the pandemic, they don’t know what they can do in their daily life to feel like they’re achieving anything and of course because of social distancing they feel disconnected from one another in certain ways, so games are not the [only] answer, but they are a way of ameliorating some of those problems.”

‘A dark side’

But while video games may alleviate loneliness or boredom, experts warn excessive gaming also carries multiple health risks.

Jordan Foster, a clinical psychologist who specialises in working with people who have problematic gaming behaviours, told SBS News that while gaming itself “is not a problem”, it becomes one if it interrupts healthy habits.

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“The hobby can have a dark side … In terms of health risks, people who have excessive gaming behaviours often have less sleep, they don’t exercise and display lower physical activity,” Ms Foster said.

“Eating habits often change, people with excessive gaming behaviours often snack, replacing meals for constant snacking.”

The dangers emerged from the shadows in early June when Louis O’Niell, a 24-year-old football coach in England, died from deep vein thrombosis (DVT) after spending the coronavirus lockdown playing online games with friends. 

His father, Stanley O’Neill, is now warning others about the dangers of inactivity.

“This damn lockdown. After being furloughed he took to his gaming world to escape. Caught up in a virtual world he became less active, so easily done,” Mr O’Neill posted to Facebook.

“Hours fly by when absorbed by the screen. I have done it countless times myself. But no-one … ever in a million years would have predicted a blood clot. And just like that, it ripped my son away and I died inside along with him.”

Ms Foster said gaming can over time become addictive and people are especially susceptible during the current pandemic. 

“The more frequently we’re gaming in the long term, it becomes really difficult to try and stop that behaviour, and what we find is that we’re actually gaming more, it’s quite a slippery slope.” 

“Moving out of the pandemic and out of these restrictions when people aren’t going back to their normal healthy lifestyles is when it’s [gaming’s] going to become a problem.”

Ms Foster suggests gamers need to be aware of their own screen habits and try to keep a log.

Industry of growth 

Even as restrictions are lifted in Australia, many video gamers are expected to keep up their online activity, boosting the industry’s prospects long-term.

A survey by peak body Interactive Games and Entertainment Association found that 84 per cent of video game producers see no immediate staff cuts as a recession looms.

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“Video games are going to be an area where more people are likely to spend because relative to the amount of time you can invest in for dollar spend, it can often be quite a substantial gain as opposed, to say, buying a movie,” Mr Harrison said.

Trent Kusters, co-founder of League of Geeks

Trent Kusters, co-founder of Melbourne-based independent studio League of Geeks

SBS News

Trent Kusters, a co-founder of Australian independent studio League of Geeks, told SBS News that his small business is looking to hire more staff as it works on a new title following the success of its first game Armello.

“We’re hiring about 12 roles, and we’ve got room for more further down in production as well … we don’t actually see [COVID-19 as] too much of a production risk at all and actually other studios around Australia are saying the same thing.”

Mr Kusters said that the government should not take the video game industry, which is worth about $3 billion, for granted.

“Australia’s independent game scene absolutely holds its own … [it] is delivering so much return on every dollar that’s put in and it’s not just in tax, it’s actually in jobs as well.”

A spokesperson for the office for the Arts told SBS News “the government is open to exploring mechanisms that will assist games businesses” and that it “is committed to supporting [Australia’s] creative industries”.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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