Coronavirus is dominating headlines and having a detrimental effect on anyone who works in or watches live sport, but it has created opportunities to broadcast esports where instead of watching someone to play a sport you watch them play video games.

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Already we have seen League 2 football club Leyton Orient stage a 128-team FIFA tournament to raise funds for English clubs, F1 launched a virtual grand prix series to replace the F1 races called off, while there was also the virtual running of horse racing’s cancelled Grand National.

Rugby hasn’t been ignored. Here at RugbyPass, a FIFA tournament has kept high profile characters of northern hemisphere professional rugby – the likes Mako Vunipola, Ellis Genge, Adam Hastings and Jack Nowell to name just four – occupied in trying to find the region’s best rugby player at FIFA.  

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We reflect on the RugbyPass FIFA charity tournament which has seen players like Mako Vunipola fight it out online

Major League Rugby, the USA’s professional league, also launched an online tournament on Twitch where players representing each of the clubs in the 12-team league play Rugby 20, the PlayStation/Xbox game published at the start of the year. Then there is Munster, the Irish club who this week announced a partnership with Phelan Gaming to participate in esports events under the Munster name. 

These recent developments should open the mind to endless possibilities, as rugby is a sport that needs new fans and new generations to take up the game at an early stage and stay fans. It’s not a small sport but it cannot compare to football, which is in a completely different realm. 

Many people get into rugby – or any sport for that matter – through being taken to their local club as a child, but a new way for kids to get into a sport is through video games, one of the largest industries in the world and the choice of leisure activity for many young people. 

With the world at a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is now a realisation that people can become sports fans through playing electronic games instead of actually playing the sport itself. 

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Even World Rugby vice-president Agustin Pichot has cottoned on, mentioning this past week during his electioneering to become chairman in next month’s election that rugby hasn’t really captured the imagination of those who love their sports via a games console.

“Rugby’s old-fashioned in terms of technology,” he said. “I see my kids today and realise the importance of e-sports for the new generations. They play Fortnite, League of Legends, FIFA. All of the established sports markets are connected with digital games and that is a huge means of attracting a younger audience. FIFA 2020, NBA 2K20, NFL Madden.

“Rugby hasn’t had a decent game since Jonah Lomu Rugby in 1995, so that would be part of the remit for a dedicated World Rugby innovation department. You need to think about how you approach the modern fan. Young boys and girls. It’s not rocket science.”

Pichot’s statement on Jonah Lomu Rugby 1995 being ‘the only decent rugby game’ might have been harsh. EA Sports’ Rugby 08 is still fondly remembered. But you catch Pichot’s drift – if you’re a globally large sport you should have a video game that accurately represents it. 

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This isn’t easy when a publishing giant such as EA hasn’t had anything to do with rugby since its last release twelve years ago, but there is no excuse for not trying and rugby has some serious questions to answer.

There have been nine video games released since Rugby 08. Of those, five have been playable and some were pretty good, including Rugby Challenge 1 which came out in 2011. Rugby Challenge 2 followed in 2013 and was officially licensed by that year’s Lions tour. Three years later, Rugby Challenge 3 was published while in January this year Rugby 20 came on the market, gaining some positive traction with features such as a rugby version of FIFA’s ultimate soccer team.

Sadly, the other rugby games in the last while were a waste of time and money, highlighting the need for better products if the sport is to really crack the games market and grab the attention of younger audiences.

Not that a successful game will mean instant popularity everywhere. American football, for instance, still hasn’t become one of the UK’s top ten biggest sports, but sales of its Madden video game continue to grow and it surely should help grow the sport’s appeal. 

The bottom line is that well-made games sell. NBA 2K20, the poster game for basketball, has sold eight million copies since launching last September while ice hockey’s NHL 20 has clocked sales of 1.3m sales so far, numbers rugby can only dream about achieving at the moment. 

What is clear is that the coronavirus stoppage of live sport, allied to Pichot’s recent commentary, should pique the interests of games publishers who have steered clear of rugby. Last year’s World Cup in Japan was a tremendous success and the time must be ripe for a proper video game product to give rugby more of a global esports presence.

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