Where to Turn as COVID-19 Takes Our Games Away… Its all Digital These Days

It’s a quiet and bleak time in the world of sports. As all non-essential workers have been asked to step away from their work lives, the universe of professional sports has been put on pause. I’m sad to say that my previous prediction of how the athletic part of our society would react to the outbreak of COVID-19 was incredibly naive. Players, facility workers, fans and so many more await the day when our favorite pastimes will be back, in the name of public health.

In the meantime, distractions are hard to come by. Nearly every headline heard or read is about the pandemic taking hold of our society, physically and mentally. At a time where we could really use a pleasant distraction, a time that I’ve heard compared to World War II, in terms of global efforts, we are missing one of the biggest pleasantries that our civilization provides.

So what is a sports fan to do at a time like this? Where is our refuge?

The obvious solution for the sports fan is the bevy of classic games that sports networks have been showing. Just this past Saturday ESPN hosted “K Day”, a tribute to some of the best strikeout performances in recent ESPN baseball history. That same day NBA TV aired multiple NBA Finals match-ups from the summers of 2013 and 2014 between the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat. These nostalgic re-watches are great, but not without fault.

The problem, as perfectly described by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller this week at the baseball podcast Effectively Wild, is the predictability of these outcomes. I have a friend who watched Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeout performance as part of “K Day”. Naturally, he knew exactly what was going to happen. I knew who was going to win the Finals games before I even made the decision to continue watching them. Sometimes familiarity is great. Statistics show that people genuinely enjoy watching re-runs of television shows, but at some point the monotony of classic games will kick in. They leave something to be desired. I think I may have the answer for that.

In so many ways, even before this global incident, our lives have become digital. That has only become exacerbated now. We are seeing a digital revolution not occur before our eyes, but become reinforced as “work from home” now is now more than just an option for some, but a lifeline. Dine-in delivery is now our way to eat out and support local business at the same time. As so many of us find ourselves away from friends and loved ones, we are now more than ever trying to connect through the web using entities like Skype, Zoom, and social media.

So why can’t the answer to our great sports absence be digital as well? There’s no doubt that sports video games have been a big part of professional sports’ marketing scheme since licensing agreements first became prominent in the 1990s. Personally, I still remember the majority of 1998 MLB rosters due to the countless hours of playing Major League Baseball featuring Ken Griffey Jr. for Nintendo 64.

Alas, I used to be a more dedicated sports gamer in the past than I am now. Case and point, my most recent version of Sony’s MLB the Show is the 2017 version, but in lieu of any actual live baseball to be watched, I found my own way to watch it. Setting up post-season mode in the game, I am having a replay of the 2017 post-season, to assuage my baseball-tooth, not playing the games, but just letting the computer play them against itself. This gives me the opportunity to make dinner or take care of chores in the living room. Much like what I would have done if the Indians had picked up their schedule this week in real life.

I am far from the only one to come up with this solution though. Not long after it was announced that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had COVID-19, and the NBA season was shut down indefinitely, the Phoenix Suns announced they would be playing the all missed games using the NBA 2k20 video game. True to form, they’ve played every game to date using varying methods. They’ve had a member of their 2K League team play as the Suns, and players like Devin Booker and Frank Kominsky have also taken over the sticks. More recently, that same 2K League player, Antonio Salvidar played host to the game along with a member of the Washington Wizards 2K League team as the game was controlled in full by the CPU. Lastly on this past Friday, the Suns radio play-by-play team called the action as the digital Suns took on and defeated the digital Philadelphia 76ers at the hands of real life small forward Mikal Bridges.

Meanwhile, baseball-reference.com is using the PC game Out of the Park Baseball to simulate this season’s games for its stats pages. Even better, my own home team of the Cleveland Indians can now actually be watched through the miracle this year’s iteration of MLB the Show. A grassroots effort started at the Indians’ Reddit page has produced a digital version of the Indians schedule, fully watchable live or after the fact on Twitch TV. One of the members of the subreddit is producing the season day by day as the schedule should have progressed. Full disclosure, I am watching Game 3 of the season right now as I type this and the Indians find themselves tied with the Tigers in the top of the 4th.

I was able to ask the gentleman behind this effort, an IT Director by day known online as thewarsquirrel about what possessed him to put on the games.

“I guess from my perspective, I’m in the same boat as many of the fans of MLB in general. You spend the whole off-season looking forward to what is to come in the season,” he explained, “and it’s just a really great way to pass the time.”

Not to be outdone, he also mentioned missing the sense of communal experience that comes with being a sports fan among other enthusiasts. He stated, “You miss out on that chance to commiserate or celebrate throughout the season. It’s really the community that does it for me. So my goal with these streams is to bring that anticipation back into play a bit, give us all a way to escape for a short while, and feel that excitement or frustration as the season progresses.”

Lastly, in terms of hopes for this project he is modest, yet ambitious claiming “My biggest goal, is just to get more people gathered around watching it, and hopefully build it into more of a social event, just like if these were real season games…. I think once we have a consistent core of followers who are engaged for the most part, it’ll be easier to expand it.”

The best part is something that Mr. Squirrel eluded to himself. I don’t know how this game I’m watching will end. I don’t know how this season will end. The wind could be completely out of my sails by this time next week if the Indians get off to a slow start, but at least I am watching an impartial game that could have any realistic outcome. As a testament to games like 2K and The Show, they’ve become so realistic, and so true to form, they can be used for this exact purpose. I may be without real life baseball, but I got darn close to the next best thing. They really are simulators at this point.

And then there’s yet another step towards simulation. Last week, NASCAR introduced us to iRacing. NASCAR itself is simulating its racing season using a computer simulator that real-life drivers often use for practice. The debut came last Sunday as Denny Hamlin squeaked past Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a lively finish at Miami-Homestead Speedway. It was the most watched “e-sport” on television ever.

Not only has NASCAR decided to continue the season with its iRacing Invitational, but Fox Sports plans to broadcast the races in full, including today race won not by a regular driver on the physical circuit, but a 674-time winner on this digital one, Timmy Hill. In a time where we don’t get to see many of our most talented athletes perform, this is likely as close as we are going to get with the best of the physical competing with the best of digital. And you know what? For what it is it seems pretty darn good.

For now, we all just need to hold together. Our games will be back for real soon enough, but much like this current public health crisis is changing our lives, it very well could change our sports. Maybe we will see a day where the climate change effects of auto racing lead us to full-time simulators. Maybe the time we are in creates the marriage that entities like sports leagues and video game companies have been looking for between sport and E-Sport. Maybe this is just the best distraction we have right now and we just can’t wait for life to change back to normal, whether or not normal really exists

Only time will tell, but for now, the 7th inning is about to start and its still scoreless. Let’s see if the Indians can rally late.

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