- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The image is as much a constant of pandemic-era American life as lines outside grocery stores and TV commercials promising they understand these are “challenging times”: Famous athletes playing video games.

Across practically every major sport that’s currently on hold because of the coronavirus, video games are at the center of much of sports’ replacement programming. It’s often tied to fundraising for COVID-19 relief, as when Wayne Gretzky and Alex Ovechkin battled it out on “NHL 20” last week. It’s even become more of a mainstay on traditional television with the spike in popularity of the “eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series” races being shown on FS1.

Could this burgeoning marriage of sports and esports last once live sports return? Some within the industry are optimistic that the answer is yes.

“It’s sort of (a) cross-collaboration, that we hadn’t really seen as much in the past, that is happening a lot more now,” Andrew McNeill, director of esports for Monumental Sports and Entertainment, said. “I think that’s something that will likely kind of continue into the future even when traditional sports does get back up and running again, which I think we’re excited to see.”

Some teams and organizations have found particular success with esports in the last month-plus because they already had a foundation and weren’t testing the waters for the first time.

“Sports organizations have been exploring and examining esports opportunities for some time, which is one of the reasons they were able to transition to this new format so quickly,” Remer Rietkerk, head of esports for the esports analytics firm Newzoo, wrote in an email.

Monumental is one example: Ted and Zach Leonsis have wrapped their arms around esports for years, with an investment in the esports organization Team Liquid and the founding of the Wizards District Gaming team and Caps Gaming brand. Not only did the Caps Gaming Twitch channel get to livestream Ovechkin and Gretzky bro-ing out with a video game competition last week, but the Capitals and Wizards also aired “simulated” video-game versions of postponed games in March and early April.

Now hockey fans can prepare for the “NHL Player Gaming Challenge,” a five-week tournament starring players from every team, including the Capitals’ Evgeny Kuznetsov.

A partial list of other endeavors also includes:

  • The first-ever official “NBA 2K” Players Tournament, featuring Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura and won by Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns;
  • The ongoing “MLB The Show” Players League, a round-robin tournament similar to the NHL’s in which Juan Soto will represent the Nationals;
  • The eMLS Tournament Special, in which official team gamers compete in “FIFA 20” with matches show on FS1; and
  • ESPN’s celebrity “Madden” tournament that saw Ravens wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown defeat none other than Snoop Dogg in the final game.

Arguably the most successful has been NASCAR’s virtual races using the iRacing simulation platform, whose Sunday broadcasts have broken and re-broken ratings records for televised esports. The March 29 race on a facsimile of Texas Motor Speedway drew about 1.34 million viewers, the most of any so far. IndyCar is hosting a similar iRacing challenge through May 2.

“If we got five new fans that were just sitting at home watching TV that thought it was exciting and are willing to tune in next week or willing to tune in to a NASCAR race or go to a NASCAR race because they got introduced to racing by iRacing, it’s a success,” driver Denny Hamlin told the Associated Press.

If starving sports fans are looking for something active this week, how does Rafael Nadal playing some tennis sound? Using the video game “Tennis World Tour,” the Mutua Madrid Open is putting on a virtual version of their tournament April 27-30 that features the likes of Nadal, Andy Murray, Maryland native Frances Tiafoe, Caroline Wozniacki and Madison Keys.

The winners of the men’s and women’s draws will earn 150,000 Euros, though tournament president and CEO Gerard Tsobanian is asking the winners to donate at least half of the paychecks to their peers who are struggling to make ends meet without income from tournaments.

Tsobanian said it was his idea to put on an online tournament for interested players because he’d already had success with a parallel “Tennis World Tour” event for gamers in Spain.

He said it wasn’t difficult to get pros to buy in: “Most of them nowadays are not very busy, unfortunately. They are sitting at home like we are.”

Despite a few technical glitches Monday, the first day of competition’s nearly eight-hour stream remarkably racked up more than 2.7 million views on Facebook Live. While “nothing will replace live events and live matches,” Tsobanian felt it’s bridging a gap between the gamer crowd and the broader crowd of sports fans.

But getting big-name players like Nadal involved was key, he said, a sentiment Rietkerk also shared.

“While I expect engagement on the current esports activities specifically is likely to decline once traditional sports broadcasting resumes, these organizations will come away with a lot of learnings that they can leverage for new activities suitable for their holistic strategy,” Rietkerk said.

Which could mean your favorite star athletes are asked to spend a little less time in the weight room and a little more time trying to engage fans with a video game livestream once the sports world returns to action.

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