More Than Fun and Games: Sports Industry Learning From Simulations and Disruption

The first real salvo was launched Mar 12 when the NBA‘s Phoenix Suns announced that they would be running a simulated game against the Dallas Mavericks, using NBA 2K, to take the place of one of the first cancelled games that arose due to coronavirus.

Frankly, it was a little wonky, froze a few times and didn’t have a great deal of bells and whistles, but the concept of playing virtual games for a mass audience was launched, and to the surprise of some, it drew several thousand viewers for all or parts of it. The Suns, as first adopters, won the idea game even if their team, not surprisingly, lost to the Mavs in the sim game.

And with that has come the world of gaming, esports, virtual replays and simulations, be they on RSNs, national networks or streamers, all looking to fill the content void with something, anything, resembling live sports events, as the world deals with the COVID-19 shutdown.

Now, while most will say that not playing games is a small loss compared to a global health crisis, there is no denying that the trickle-down effect of cancellations of sporting events the world over will have a multi-billion dollar effect on the economy.

That means the entrepreneurial and disruptive approach being taken by teams and leagues now actually helps improve (or at least placate) the psyche–and perhaps even wallets–of fans, brands, teams and leagues, not just for now but likely into the future.

In the past week, we have seen the Washington Wizards AND Capitals go to running full simulation games on NBC Sports Washington, with CapsGaming using their best player, John Wayne, playing against the best players from opposing teams.

MLS clubs like the New England Revolution and Portland Timbers have pulled players from their clubs into live simulations to get fans more involved, and the Montréal Canadiens have enlisted players and elite ‘CHel players for contests they are streaming as well.

This Friday, Mar 27, NBA 2K will launch full league play, with their players playing from remote locations while NBA players and celebrities offer commentary.

All that is in addition to the well received and innovative iRacing debut NASCAR had on FS1 Sunday, replete with drivers, crashes, driver commentary, track billboards and yes even a dedicated sponsorship sold by driver Landon Cassil. It set a new standard for engagement, real feel and fun as we constantly look for crossover best practices between the gaming and traditional sports worlds.

“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,” said Zach Leonsis, SVP, Strategic Initiatives at Monumental Sports & Entertainment, and GM of MSE’s Monumental Sports Network  today (Mar 23). “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.”

[Read TMR POV: How Esports and Gaming Tie Directly To Fan Affinity from Zach Leonsis here.]

While all of this is short term fun and games, and good content to keep people engaged and watching on whatever device they choose, what are the lessons coming out of these experiments that can translate into value once the real action returns?

“There was a time during one of the NBA work stoppages that we had to resort to showing ‘The American President’ every Thursday night instead of games, and even though it was a cost effective and popular film that drew some good numbers, it wasn’t anywhere near as engaging with live content that people love and our brand partners were paying for,” added Dr. Harvey Schiller, former president of Turner Sports and YankeeNets, now head of consulting for Schiller Sports Management. “The gamification content now, be it a simulation or one where you can have athletes, or coaches participate and interact with fans, is very important not just for now, but for what can be done for ancillary broadcast programming in the future. I’m a scientist and know that experimentation at any level is so important and gets us to see things differently especially when change is unforeseen and forced upon us. I know this is not where sports wants to be today as a business, but the learnings that will come out for the digital space will be ones to grow with.”

Are there specific learnings that jump forward right away?

One we have seen is with another digital first property, The Drone Racing League, which in addition to having over 300,000 people watch qualifying races the last few weeks, worked with an online education company, EduScape, to create a curriculum tied to STEM.

David Kindler for DRL

The program gives both teachers and kids the ability to use an online simulator and connect with elite drone pilots as part of an offering for at home learning, something infinitely valuable as teachers struggle for ways to keep millions of young folks engaged with school work in these challenging times.

“Drone racing is the ultimate sport to facilitate STEM programming and inspire students to learn about robotics, engineering, and physics,” DRL CEO and Founder, Nicholas Horbaczewski said. “Through DRL Academy, we’ll leverage our cutting edge drone technology, custom content, and futuristic sports competition to provide teachers and students with a digital-first curriculum during this challenging time and beyond.”

Even with all those learnings for now, another interesting best practice could arise, according to one disruptive content creator watching the goings on pretty closely.

“Sports fans want not just content, but different and compelling content that they can enjoy, it’s not just about running classic games,” said Jeff Eisenband, a host for NBA 2K League and MSG Network, whose expertise is on early adoption especially in the gaming field. “Teams are learning a valuable lesson with re-creations and streaming now; there is an audience that will engage, and the test that is being done now across traditional sports could be used in coming years as pregame programming for an NBA or NHL game to combine both a traditional and a nontraditional audience.”

“In a normal year teams and leagues might not be paying as much attention as they could be to gaming and simulations,” Eisenband continues. “But, because of the goings on now, they are being forced to, and what’s coming out of it is a potential best practice that is fun, sellable, cost efficient and very engaging.”

This new world order of consumption won’t be without its warts. There will be a rush to return to normalcy when COVID-19 subsides and we get sports back to where we were. However the lessons teams, leagues, media properties and brands can take away from this forced experiment will be opening a door to engagement that may have remained mostly closed as we went about our traditional business.

The future, or at least a glimpse of its possibilities, is happening now.