BARCELONA: When two Spanish footballers took control of “FIFA 20” after the coronavirus pandemic saw their La Liga match canceled, a stadium-sized virtual audience watched online.

The huge digital crowd last week is part of a spectacular boom for the digital gaming industry as record numbers flock to online servers to distract themselves, entertain themselves, and befriend the seemingly crumbling “real world”.

Real Betis forward Borja Iglesias kicked the winning goal using his own digital image in the 6-5 battle against Sevilla, which was broadcast on the popular video game streaming platform Twitch.

It took place at the same time that the original derby had been scheduled, before Spain’s first tournament was postponed as part of containment measures that have also seen the country’s 46 million people largely confined to their homes.

“We do all of this to entertain everyone, so they can be home enjoying it, as much as possible with this epidemic,” the host of the broadcast told his audience of 60,000.

Almost every country in the world has reported cases of COVID-19 infection, and the frenzied efforts to contain the disease caused the almost total closure of some of the world’s largest cities.

Online gaming has proven to be a welcome diversion for many people who are upset by movement restrictions, the cancellation of countless public events, and a relentless rush of news about the pandemic.

“It made me feel less depressed about being in a small space for a long time,” said Yang An, who was quarantined for two weeks in China after returning to Shanghai from her hometown last month.

She told AFP that she spent time playing up to eight hours a day on her portable Nintendo Switch console.

Increasing demand

Internet providers have been quick to shore up their networks in the face of growing demand.

Gaming traffic on the Verizon network shot up 75 percent “unprecedented” in the space of a week, the US telecommunications company recently said.

Software companies have also been quick to accommodate a record number of users.

Rockstar Games, publisher of the Wild West-themed adventure title “Red Dead Redemption”, promised players that it would keep their online servers running smoothly after telling their global workforce to work from home.

The company also triggered a rollout of additional in-game activities to keep players confined to their controllers.

Online gambling communities could “go some way to create the public space that has been lost” in the wake of the pandemic, said Christian McCrea, professor of gaming media studies at Australia’s RMIT University.

He pointed to Pokemon Go, a smartphone game that became a global phenomenon in 2016 when it drew millions of people to the streets for a virtual monster hunt, which its developer modified this month to make it easier for users to play at home.

HIGH IMPACT

McCrea said gambling habits are likely to undergo a massive transformation in the coming months, with the prospect of more economic rumors and long stretches of social isolation on the horizon.

“Overall, the big impact will be younger children at home for months with parents out of work,” he told AFP. “Games will be at the center of much of their free time.”

Video games have long been accused of causing a host of health problems, ranging from repetitive strain injuries to vision problems.

The World Health Organization classified gambling addiction as a disease in 2018, the same year that China launched an offensive against the industry out of concern that young people were spending too much time online.

But veteran players now ironically appear among those best placed to navigate the pandemic and its impact on everyday life.

Twitch broadcaster “Loeya” told her more than a million fans in a broadcast last week that travel restrictions and school closings in her native Sweden and elsewhere would likely not alter her own schedule, mostly indoors and with many games.

“Technically I quarantined myself, like, three years ago,” the 22-year-old joked.