Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
August 10, 2020

How major sports leagues are trying to fill the gap

By MATTHEW RITCHIE | April 14, 2020

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to progress with little to no sign of slowing down, the sports world continues to remain on hold. The National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs were slated to start this past weekend, but now, there are pessimistic rumblings concerning the future of the League. According to ESPN, League officials believe that even at the most optimistic projections, the June 25 amateur draft could be pushed to August 1 at the earliest. Also, there is no current plausible plan to resume the 2019-2020 season.

The Major League Baseball (MLB) season, which has already seen their opening day surpassed as the pandemic rages on, is searching for radical alternatives. According to USA Today, baseball has considered playing the season exclusively in the state of Arizona at the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field. On top of this one-state solution, the League has discussed realigning the sport’s divisions to match Spring Training, allowing the teams to play at their spring homes in Florida and Arizona. But nothing is concrete, and these ideas are just being tossed around as the MLB refuses to give up on its 2020 season. 

So, whilst the major professional sports leagues are searching for long-term solutions for this major long-term problem, they have begun to fill the empty space with alternatives. With all of their athletes sitting at home, there are a limited number of possibilities for entertainment. Even facing the obvious obstacles, both the MLB and the NBA are attempting to provide a semblance of content in the midst of their hiatuses. 

The MLB capitalized on the recent release of their latest video game MLB The Show 20 and embarked upon a series of tournaments utilizing the game’s online features. Just a couple of weeks ago, the League started a brief four-person players tournament that was hosted using the streaming site Twitch. The tournament featured Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell, Minnesota Twins pitcher Trevor May, San Francisco Giants outfielder Hunter Pence and Cincinnati Reds pitcher Amir Garrett. 

The inaugural final ended with Garrett defeating Snell in the final by a score of 2-1. At the conclusion of the game, Garrett expressed his excitement and gratitude in a singular tweet. 

“Thank you @MLBTheShow for hosting this event. In a time where everything that’s broadcasted is either heart wrenching or more bad news you gave not only me but, the fans of the best sport in the world something to cheer for,” he said. “I’m highly grateful to have been a part of that today.”

It’s clear that the players understand the impact that sports have on everyday life. Garrett echoed the sentiments of many who are struggling with the anxiety that seems to never subside with COVID-19. Many people are searching for any sense of normalcy amongst our new confusing reality, and for some sports fans, the avenue of online gaming with their favorite stars can provide that. 

The MLB recognized the attention its premiere tournament gained and decided to announce another competition through MLB The Show 20. This past Friday, 30 players began the inaugural “MLB The Show” online league featuring one player from each team controlling their respective MLB franchise. Some of the MLB’s biggest stars are in on the fun, including Snell and Garrett, as well as budding superstars like Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto and San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. 

Each participant will play 29 games, each just three innings long, with the players with the top eight records advancing to the postseason. The postseason will include the Division and Championship Series, each a best-of-three matchup. The competition will conclude with the World Series, a best-of-five series that will determine the champion of the league. 

Obviously, the online league is not a complete fill-in for the 162-game schedule that baseball fans know and love. However, it is something. The league is slated to last for three weeks, and for those three weeks, that is the only taste of baseball many will have. It’s already a ton of fun, as fans get to see their favorite players’ personalities through the unique medium of Twitch, in a way that would have been impossible during the actual season. 

The NBA has also sought out alternative forms of content as their play is still suspended due to the pandemic. The League went the route of video games this past week and started the NBA 2K Players Tournament, featuring 16 of the NBA’s stars including Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant, Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young and Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker. Many of the League’s top players are avid gamers, given that they are part of the generation that actually understands how video games work. As a result, the NBA found a way to get their top stars in front of their fans, similarly to the MLB. 

Now on the surface, the 2K Players Tournament seemed like an inane escapade that involved watching basketball’s stars sit around and play video games. But what it did was provide the basketball world with content, which is something. ESPN even covered the event as if it was an actual tournament, which allowed the site to depart from the pessimistic news stories involving the state of the NBA amid the pandemic. 

The NBA also created another event to provide basketball content in the midst of the sports desert we are all trapped in. On Sunday, the League kicked off the opening round of a H-O-R-S-E competition between NBA and WNBA players. It arrived with a significant amount of hype, as fans expected a quality product from actual basketball players.

However, what arrived was the opposite of quality: It was kind of disappointing. Some of the flaws were unavoidable, including the quality of the streams hosted by the individual players. It is incredibly difficult to coordinate a simulcast with the differing WiFi capabilities. Also, a significant percentage of the stream involved just watching players miss shots, which is part of the game of H-O-R-S-E. These things were bound to happen, but to many of the viewers it made the project unwatchable. 

However, it is unfair to slander and criticize the NBA for the lackluster opening round of the competition. We all miss basketball, like we miss all the other sports and activities that remind us of how life was before the virus hit. What the NBA provided was a considerable effort to provide a sliver of the game that was taken from us. 

This effort, like every other effort that has been undertaken to distract us from the anxiety-inducing reality we are currently trapped in, should be commended. In a world without sports, there’s going to missteps in the programming created to fill the void. They have to be taken in stride and appreciated for what they are: earnest attempts to somehow bring the happiness of sports back.

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