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How COVID-19 Stole Sports and Accelerated Our Simulated Future

Kamran Rosen headshot
Kamran Rosen / Jun 22, 2020
The pandemic has torn sports away from us for the moment. But it is also accelerating the arrival of a vastly more engaging future sports experience.

For the first April in 137 years, America had no sports.

This unprecedented break left fans and players devastated, and the global sports industry desperate to recoup an estimated $61.6 billion in lost revenue—a best-case scenario depending on which — and what versions of — pro sports manage to return in the remainder of 2020.

With the whole country grappling with how to deal with the unprecedented void of one of society’s most cherished bedrocks, one seemingly implausible, yet increasingly logical solution has started to emerge: What if we future-proof sports by simulating them?

While the idea of taking the most hyperphysical aspect of our culture and elevating its digital depictions to equal importance and impact may sound far-fetched — even blasphemous — a world of simulated sports has actually been in the making for decades.

Esports—the virtual world’s answer to traditional pro sports leagues—is already one of the fastest growing sectors in entertainment, with roughly 1 in 2 Americans playing video games in the last year. This increased popularity has largely been driven by free-to-play, easy-to-start online multiplayer games like Fortnite, which have expanded gaming’s traditional hypercompetitiveness into a wider cultural experience—similar to the same way we socialize sporting events. Fortnite even featured what could be called their version of a halftime show, with an in-game Travis Scott concert that garnered a record 12.3 million live participants.

At the same time, sports games like NBA 2K have pushed the boundaries of real life emulation, including everything from player’s jump shot form and celebrations to real-time updates on their multi-factor player ratings. MLB managers are regularly using one hyper-accurate baseball strategy simulation to practice scenarios for real-life games.

Combine it all, and simulated sports are beginning to feel a lot like real ones.

Which raises a Turing-esque conundrum: if our games can accurately simulate real life—is there a difference? Can we simulate a future where digital sports replace physical ones?

With the worldwide quarantine acting as a sort of global petri dish for simulated sports, we take a look at exactly how—and when—the future of digital sports might arrive.

Now » The Discovery Phase

When the NCAA cancelled March Madness on March 12th amid coronavirus concerns, the creators of the Atlantic 10 Conference fan page SBUnfurled decided to do the next best thing: simulate the tournament.

Enlisting a 4-person team to input accurate team ratings, uniforms, bracketing—even schools’ fight songs—SBUnfurled worked to debut their simulated 68-team ‘Quarantourney’ on March 19, just one week after March Madness was set to begin. The sim tournament (hosted on NBA 2K20’s “MyGM” mode) garnered 25k viewers its opening weekend (including view from many current A-10 players). Roughly a dozen other simulations followed, a few even commented on by professional sports broadcast hosts.

It seems the technology for simulated sports—which has been developing relatively dormantly under the constant shadow of the popular sports they emulate—is now receiving a steroid shot in the influx of socially isolated fans. Between January and April 2020, Twitch reported its daily figures increased by a whopping 83% to 2.5 million daily concurrent viewers, and popular simulation house Wolverine Studios estimates interest in sports simulations to be “2-3x as high as before [Corona].”

ps3 controllers held playing esports

“We have definitely seen an increase in people turning to our simulation games as a replacement for sports though during this coronavirus quarantine time,” confirmed one of their representatives.

Not one to miss out on the action (and likely hurting from a 90% decrease in sports betting) leading oddsmaker Bovada also began simulating and even taking bets on the remainder of the NBA schedule via leading livestream platform Twitch. The simulations were so good the Washington Wizards games were even broadcasted by the local NBC Sports.

This isn’t some digital coronavirus novelty. Bovada has seen steady year-over-year growth in their esports betting, but this year it jumped by an astounding 85.15%. According to Pat Morrow, Bovada’s Head Oddsmaker, betting action on popular simulated games is already exceeding that of some NFL games from last season.

“When we first started offering simulation betting we thought this would be something to tide our clients over until the North American sports schedule started up again,” says Morrow. “The more we do with the simulated sports, the more it is looking like it will catch on after most sports return…We believe that simulations can fill the void left by off seasons.”

So to recap: real fans, real announcers, real viewers, real odds, real bets. Simulated games.

Discovery phase for simulated sports: complete.

Next » The Augmentation Phase

While sports games have existed since the dawn of video games (some arguing that the oscilloscope-powered ”Tennis For Two” in 1958 is the first-ever virtual game), they’ve always been that: just games.

While professional leagues have leaned into the popularity of affiliated video games franchises (the NBA notably having 17 affiliated NBA 2K gaming teams), they have always been seen as external to the game; a publicity multiplier if you will. After all, a game can sell more tickets, but what does shooting a basket have to do with pressing a joystick?

But what happens when sports “games” become more than just games— evolving from amusements into accurate, situation-predicting training simulations? Could they be used by players and management to improve their skills?

That’s the case currently being made by management strategy simulation game, Out of The Park Baseball, which now, in its 21st season, has become so accurate that MLB managers are using it for practice. According to Richard Grisham, COO of the parent company, Out of the Park Developments, MLB management isn’t just casually playing the game, but rather the company is “working directly with clubs and onboarding them into the program.”

“I’ve had a few guys tell me that ‘This is great, because what we’re gonna do is set up a bunch of what-ifs, so we can walk through them in-game and then we can see what the results are.”

Out of the Park (which has accurately predicted the World Series winner for the last 3 years) represents a blueprint for how mature simulated sports augmentation could look for all sports. The simulation has gained so much traction with its accuracy that it’s being used to simulate games on baseball-reference.com, a full alternate season reported on by The Athletic, and a fantasy “Dream Bracket”, hosted with DraftKings.

In other words, Major League Baseball has temporarily been replaced by a simulation.

However by Grisham’s own admission, baseball by nature is really “a series of individual matchups”—easier to isolate and simulate than dynamic team sports like football or hockey.

But what if we look a little downstream? To other, more individual sports?

That’s precisely what’s happened in the world of golf simulators, where brands like Skytrac, and Trackman have attracted over 4 million professional and amateur golfers by providing valuable feedback on details like launch angle and ball spin, and allowing practice reps when weather or scheduling prevents golf course access. Enthusiasts can even buy the same simulator Tiger Woods uses to practice and then play on hyper-detailed recreations of the same courses as he plays.

While golf simulations stand out as a rare example of professional athletes using simulation “games” to improve, the rest of the sporting world might not be far behind.

For example, due to the Coronavirus postponing of all NASCAR Cup races, professional drivers have been competing in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro invitational Series, a simulated racing competition involving iRacing software, a physical pedal and a wheel hooked up to a screen.

According to professional series driver Clint Bowyer, the experience is “extremely realistic.”

“You drive these things so much with the pedals, with the gas, the brake, the steering input,” Bowyer recently told Sporting News. “All of those inputs in your mind are the exact same thing, and the same tools we use.”

Even more complex sports like football and basketball are using virtual reality simulations to train quarterbacks on playbooks and improve players’ free throw shooting ability. Ushered in by established simulations in golf and baseball, soon any sport will have the capacity to be isolated, quantified, and simulated—possibly to such a degree that “virtual game” and “training simulation” will be indistinguishable.

The question: if a fan is good at a simulation game, can they become a player? A coach? Your coworker who always wins fantasy brackets saying that they should be a GM—do they have a point?

When asked if he could picture a world in which a fan who consistently performed very well in Out of the Park’s fantasy simulation brackets might be offered a job by a professional GM, Grisham was quick to respond: “Absolutely”.

The Future » Physical-Digital Synergy

In 20 years, “sports” will mean much more than it ever has.

Esports, sports simulation, data analysis, virtual augmentation and play will all be considered components of sports— just as much as the game itself. The NBA, NFL, MLB, and virtually every professional sports league, will have affiliated virtual games used both to train existing players and managers—and scout new ones.

Broadcasters, entertainment networks, and bettors will see their influence expand exponentially, as the reach and access of schedule-and-location-independent simulated sports allows for constant action. Sports leagues on global platforms like Twitch will see concurrent viewership in the millions as viewers tune in and out continuously, depending on their global time zones.

A kid who’s allowed to compete on an iRacing simulator before he gets his license will have no lag in transitioning to a physical car—if that’s even still necessary. Software and hardware will have accelerated to the point where racing on a closed loop track with the risk of dying is no longer necessary. Unencumbered by cost of travel, golfing will explode globally as virtual indoor simulations allow for tournaments that take place in destinations all across the world.

Young man using VR racing simulator

Highly customizable games like NBA 2K will have accelerated their virtual worlds to the degree that exact replica avatars of players can interact online at custom courts, where they can socialize, train, or watch professionals play online. An NBA game and a 2K game will be virtually identical.

Individuals seeking strategy-based roles will be able to observe and quantify player attributes, update their proprietary algorithms and run simulations to determine who they pick for their fantasy lineups. Public brackets will receive large scale attention, with winners being scouted by professional leagues for management positions. Those who prefer to use their talents in a more financially lucrative manner will be able to bet on full simulated seasons. While many of these capabilities exist today, they’ve been the province of elite power users and superfans. Thanks to the pandemic, they’ll be part of the mainstream in the very near future.

Ultimately, sports and sports simulations will not replace each other, or even augment each other, but will intertwine and fuse together to become one. The synergy of digital and physical sports will allow for a broadening of access and excellence previously limited by logistical capacity and physics.

The coronavirus may have torn sports away from us for the moment, but it is also pushing us through a door to a vastly more engaging future sports experience that we’ll arrive at far sooner than previously expected.