The return of sport amid the pandemic has been one of the few saving graces for many people over the last year.
It’s provided a welcome distraction from the humdrum of multiple lockdowns and offered a sense of hope that, one day, things will return to some sort of normality.
The same is true in the world of esports, an industry that has had to play some of its biggest and most spectacular tournaments behind closed doors over the last 12 months.
René Romann is a huge fan of esports outfit Team Liquid and says following his favorite organization has provided respite during such difficult times.
“It’s kind of interesting to see this online family, this Liquid family, and how we can help each other in certain situations, especially in this pandemic,” Romann tells CNN Sport.
“Also getting […] knowledge of what is going on worldwide, because you have this worldwide fan base.
“It’s really helpful, if you have any kind of problem, you can talk to people and they really help you.”
READ Surviving two weeks of isolation to play video games
‘Watching the games together’
Romann, a 34-year-old software engineer from Hamburg, Germany, says he spends up to two hours a day engaging Team Liquid’s content, though he misses the opportunity to watch his favorite players perform live in front of packed-out stadiums.
However, as a keen gamer himself, spending time and playing online with this virtual community has made the last year that little bit more bearable.
“I wouldn’t call myself a super fan,” he says, laughing. “But it depends a little bit on how you define it.”
“Like [how] other people check the newspapers, it’s more for me that I check what they [Team Liquid] are doing.
“Just watching the games together, having some kind of viewing party, and you’re just talking about what the team will do or what the team should not do […] that’s kind of interesting.”
Studies have shown the esports fanbase has rocketed in recent years and, with everyone stuck indoors due to lockdowns, viewership increased again during 2020.
Keeping those fans engaged is paramount for an organization like Team Liquid, which says its supporters are at the heart of everything it does.
Team Liquid’s co-CEO Steve Arhancet says his team regularly sends handwritten letters and calls fans over the phone in order to foster that community feel. It’s something that he says has been extra important during such tough times.
“When you’re able to provide that kind of care and consideration that you would to a family member or a friend or someone that you just care about, why is it any different for a relationship between the sports team and its fans? It should be the same,” Arhancet tells CNN Sport.
“I think a lot of other teams take it for granted. They just assume that you could just watch our content and that’s enough. It isn’t. You have to care and you have to listen and you have to remember.”
Team Liquid has teams in 17 different games, which Arhancet says is akin to owning an NFL, NBA and soccer team.
His goal is to treat fans of these different games as one family and he hopes the launch of a new platform will help to do that.
Liquid+ is the new one-stop-shop for everything you need to know about the team. On the online platform, fans can win points for engaging with the team’s social media which can in turn earn them special experiences with their favorite team and players.
It also provides a space for fans to talk to one another and play specialized games.
“It’s very exciting to get some kind of reward for what you do there with them, simply because it’s some kind of reward for things that you’re already doing,” says Romann.
The new platform encourages fans to connect their social media accounts allowing Team Liquid a chance to learn more about its fan base and tailor content accordingly.
In many ways, Liquid+ is the first of its kind and Arhancet says it won’t be long before other teams follow suit.
“I think it’s good that other esports teams are thinking about it in this way, and I think it will overall help the esports ecosystem,” he says.
“I’m kind of glad to see that kind of innovation happen by other teams. It will level up what we’re doing.”
Being able to provide this “virtual stadium” will also help esports stay ahead of the curve in terms of more traditional sports, says Arhancet.
“We don’t have big stadiums, but what we do have is this kind of digital stadium where we can provide the same sort of experiences and events and even food and beverage,” he says.
“It’s not limited to just the folks that are coming to that 10,000 person stadium. We can do a global event and publish around the world to all of our fans, which is a bigger opportunity to reach more people.”