- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2020

Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin have done their usual preparation to call Tuesday’s Washington Capitals game against the St. Louis Blues: studying up on individual St. Louis players, preparing a flip card or, in Laughlin’s case, long pages of notes on legal pad paper.

But Tuesday’s broadcast will mark a first for both of them. NBC Sports Washington will air an “NHL 20” simulation of Capitals-Blues at 7 p.m., the same time those teams would have faced off in the District had the NHL season not been suspended.

The Capitals and the Washington Wizards are believed to be the first teams in the four major sports leagues to air video game simulations of previously scheduled games on their regional sports network. It’s one of two primary efforts coming out of Monumental Sports and Entertainment to provide fans a respite of entertainment amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“We know that fans are as disappointed as we are not to be able to watch our favorite teams on a nightly basis,” Zach Leonsis, Monumental senior vice president of strategic initiatives, said in a statement. “We hope that these fun and engaging video game simulations will entertain our fans and help provide a greater sense of normalcy during these challenging times. We hope that when people tune in and watch these simulated games, they will be able to enjoy some friendly competitive play from the comforts of their own home.”

The Leonsises, who are big believers in esports, are also using their hockey esports brand, Caps Gaming, in a similar way. Caps Gaming’s John Casagranda, known by the gamertag “JohnWaynee90,” is competing with other pro “NHL 20” gamers in a series of games mirroring the Capitals’ would-be schedule. Caps Gaming is livestreaming those competitions for fans on Twitch.

The NBC Sports Washington broadcasts, meanwhile, are simulated games and don’t involve live game play. The project rolled out Saturday with an “NBA 2K20” sim of the Wizards and the Milwaukee Bucks. Much like the game probably would have gone down in real life, Giannis Antetokounmpo dunked all over Washington and the East-leading Bucks won by 19.

That broadcast used the video game’s own commentary, and NBC Sports Washington interspliced it with Chris Miller, one of its Wizards analysts, providing analysis before the game and between quarters. For hockey, though, NBC will rely on its longtime broadcast team of Beninati on play-by-play and Laughlin doing color commentary.

“While we are all stuck in quarantine, the best that we can do to help bring the sports fan some entertainment, I’m all for it,” Beninati said in an interview. “As much as I can help in any different way, in any different type of capacity. This is allowing me to do what I love the best.”

Beninati and Laughlin will record commentary for these games from their homes, but that won’t throw them off much. Beninati pointed out that they’ve called some of the Capitals’ road preseason games from NBC Sports Washington’s studio in Bethesda, Maryland.

They won’t pretend like a Capitals win will mean something for the playoff race.

“We’re not counting them as wins in the regular season,” Beninati said. “If Alex (Ovechkin) gets two goals, it’s not gonna be called like it’s his 50th (of the season). We’re trying to live in that moment.”

The idea of substituting video games in for the real thing has also caught on in NASCAR. On Sunday, 35 NASCAR drivers competed with advanced driving simulation rigs in “iRacing,” and Denny Hamlin edged out Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a virtual stock car race set at Homestead-Miami Speedway, broadcast nationally on Fox Sports 1.

Many NASCAR drivers already owned the expensive rigs; some used computer simulations to start training as racers before they were old enough to get their driver’s licenses. Hamlin was first discovered by Earnhardt in “iRacing” long before he made it to NASCAR.

NASCAR has suspended racing until at least May 9, and with nothing else to do, series executives and “iRacing” put together the inaugural race in roughly one week. More events are expected to come.

Video games and social distancing seem to go hand in hand, as recent reports indicate that the esports world is experiencing a boom while major sports have been suspended due to the pandemic.

But for those sports fans who don’t already game competitively and don’t want to try to learn how to follow an online battle arena game like “League of Legends,” there’s now the comfort of settling in on a weeknight and watching a virtual version of basketball or hockey — in the Capitals’ case, complete with the bona fide broadcast voices.

“At 7 o’clock on game nights I’m exactly where I want to be. That’s one of my favorite places to be,” Beninati said. “And if I can’t be there now for however long it takes, this gives us a little bit of a distraction. This gives us a little bit of a supplement that will hopefully keep people interested. And it’s going to sound really authentic.”

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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