For the traditional sports world, the pandemic has changed almost everything. Only a few countries have been able to play with fans in the stands, the NBA, NHL and MLB all had to adopt bubble systems to get players playing again. In college football, an entity rivalling its pro counterpart in America, two of the biggest conferences decided they wouldn’t be playing in the fall. The rest of the football world is moving forward but uncertainty still hangs like the frozen dew on a November morning.
In comparison, esports hasn’t had to deal with as many logistics (or ethical concerns) to get playing. Competitions moving online certainly isn’t the ideal situation (and the Call of Duty League highlighted the potential drawbacks during Champs) but competitions and schedules have largely been able to move forward. This summer didn’t see a The International from Valve for the first time in a decade but it did have teams qualifying for the League of Legends World Championship from the various regional leagues.
But sports simulations, the subsection of esports that overlaps most cleanly with the traditional sports world, has seen new competitions pop up in the wake of the pandemic. NBA players are playing NBA 2K, FIFA players are grabbing the sticks with soccer stars, even Wayne Gretzky, the best hockey player of all time played NHL 20 for charity at the age of 59. For Todd Sitrin, EA’s SVP and GM of the Competitive Gaming Entertainment Division, COVID only accelerated the group’s stated mission.
“Our strategy didn’t change dramatically because of COVID, what changed was our timing,” Sitrin told the Esports Insider. “When we founded this division five years ago, the rest of the world was calling it esports, we made a conscious decision to call it competitive gaming. Our definition of esports is broader, we’re really about entertainment around competition.”
While entertainment is the core offering of every esports event, and every video game for that matter, what Sitrin believes will be successful is focusing less on who wins and loses and more on creating unique competitive structures that people want to watch.
“When COVID hit, we started creating some charity events,” Sitrin explained. “We created the FIFA Stay and Play Cup, we brought celebrities in to give it more weight. When we saw the response to that event, light bulbs went off. We decided we should be leveraging celebrities more in our competitions.”
Video game developers quickly turned to charity during the pandemic. Riot Games sold League of Legends skins, Activision Blizzard supported funding of a drug aimed at fighting the disease, and Ubisoft held a charity stream with Codemasters. On the sports simulation side, Take-Two Interactive brought NBA players together to compete in NBA 2K for charity. So did EA in each of its three major sports simulation titles: Madden, FIFA 20, and NHL 20.
The success from celebrities is now guiding EA’s decision making into the future. It has recently announced a new format for Madden competitions, bringing in the celebrity aspect that has made some of the pandemic competitions successful.
In Fall, Los Angeles Chargers star safety Derwin James will take on a wide list of celebrities who want to challenge him in Madden competitions. “Derwin James vs. The World” will see Derwin likely pick off young celebrities all over the football field before he takes on an actual professional gamer in the winner of the Madden Club Championship at the end of the year.
“There are many competitive formats out there when you look at the non-esports competitive scene,” Sitrin continued. “You look at things like The Great British Bake-Off, American Idol, Survivor, The Amazing Race. There are a lot of other ways to create competition and you’re going to see us explore those more and more.”
There’s no doubt those shows are successful in their own way, but those competitive formats have been created out of necessity. There is no scoreboard in baking, no world records to be set by an amateur singer.
The vast majority of the sporting world use a format more similar than it is different. Even in esports, with changes happening rapidly and competitive formats often changing, there are some tried and true methods. For EA, entertainment is now the primary focus.
EA has experimented with a wide variety of different competitive formats for Madden, NHL and FIFA, but now time has taken them back to the last decade when Madden players travelled around the country on the Madden Bus, being joined by NFL players and challenged by other players.
“Madden Nation” ran four seasons on ESPN from 2005-08 before it was cancelled. With “Derwin James Vs. The World” and “King of the Hill,” another new broadcast pairing up NFL players and professional Madden players, EA is returning to its “Madden Nation” roots – focusing on celebrity-based broadcast TV gaming competitions.