Esports in wake of disaster

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September 21, 2001.

Ten days had passed since a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center killed nearly 3,000 people, shocking the United States and the world at large. Communities across the globe were paralyzed in fear, families grieved for their lost loved ones and the nation was in a crisis.

But on that night, at Shea Stadium, not even nine miles away from one of the worst disasters in modern American history, people weren’t consumed by catastrophe. All 41,235 sets of eyes were set on Mike Piazza, New York Mets slugger extraordinaire, who came to the plate at the bottom of the eighth down 2 runs to the Atlanta Braves.

The city that never sleeps was at a standstill. The Mets’ best opportunity to swing this game in their favor was on the back of Piazza. He knew it. The fans knew it. New York knew it.

Crack. Ball to bat. The sound was so crisp, so clear, you didn’t have to look up to see what happened next.

“Deep to left center,” the announcer shouts, “Andruw Jones on the run. This one has a chance. … Home run!”

Queens was roaring, cars were honking, fans were crying. Baseball, of all things, had brought the first sigh of relief, the first moment of distraction, the first instance of excitement and joy that the city needed. It was a miracle.

It’s hard to capture just how impactful 9/11 was on the national and global psyche, but the spread of COVID-19, in many ways, brings about the same emotions felt 19 years ago.

There are differences of course. COVID-19 isn’t a deliberate attack on innocent people, nor is it localized in the United States or handled in the same manner crises were dealt with at the turn of the century. But at its core, both the events of 9/11 and the novel coronavirus have caused mass anxiety, prompted incessant and often hyperbolic news coverage and have consumed the lives of everyone even remotely affected by it.

Unlike 2001 though, the world, for the foreseeable future, will be going into isolation. Every major sports league will be on hiatus as both the disease and its effects fester and infect the public consciousness. There can be no come-from-behind home run or improbable title or crowds joined in prayer and companionship as they watch the game they love unfold. Sports — the rallying cry of the world, the distraction so desperately needed, the community so vital to recovery — is gone.

What remains?

There is nothing that replaces traditional sports. A beautiful goal in the top shelf, a long-distance putt to win on the 18th hole or a buzzer-beating three have no substitution.

But esports, aka competitive video games, may be the next best thing.

It has the same ingredients for greatness. Esports has the underdog teams, the legendary players, the storylines, the drama, the strategy, the advanced analytics, the fans, the support and everything else you think of when you think about athletic competition.

The only difference? The need for a live crowd.

Esports, unlike its mainstream counterpart, can take place online. Competition does not need to happen face-to-face, and though in-person tournaments in front of sold-out arenas are where esports often shines brightest, play can happen over the internet. Teams do not have to be huddled in sweaty, potentially disease-ridden locker rooms nor do fans have to be clumped like sardines in a packed stadium for events to go on, matches to be played and championships to be won.

Just as one can tune in at essentially any point in the day and watch a basketball game or soccer match, so too can one hop on Twitch or Youtube and watch an Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or League of Legends event. The 24-hour distraction cycle that sports has maintained since the advent of cable TV translates perfectly to online media. You may not have the experience of sitting next to a supporter painted in their team’s colors or the joy of watching a match in a pub full of fellow fans, but you can still join a Twitch chat and spam PogChamp when your favorite player pulls off a ridiculous play or has an even more ludicrous performance.

Want to grumble with your friends after your team blows a 10-round lead, or chokes after being seconds away from destroying an enemy’s nexus? Hop onto Reddit and Twitter and commiserate with fans from all across the globe.

Want to watch expert analysts break down the match and give their take? Stick around after commercial breaks for halftime highlights and post-game shows, just like ESPN.

Want to support your favorite team and player? Buy a jersey, update the social media header, subscribe to Twitch and Youtube channels. Everything you could do as a sports fan has an online equivalent.

Now, more than ever, we need sports. We need the distraction, the competition and the community. If fans want to get by in the next few months, entertainment and connection have to come from somewhere. And unlike natural disasters or temporary national emergencies, games can’t just be delayed by a few days or moved to different stadiums. Sports, as we know it, has ceased to exist. But in the rubble of shattered leagues and tournaments is the opportunity for a whole new type of competition, suited exactly for the conditions that COVID-19 has put on society.

This isn’t 2001. Gone are the days of dial-up internet, cellphones as big as your arm and Halo: Combat Evolved. Entertainment has shifted drastically, and COVID-19 gives esports its best chance to flex how sports, just like streaming and social media, has developed over the course of the last decade.

It comes down to this: Sports matter precisely because they don’t. Piazza’s homer is a big deal not because baseball has some intrinsic or existential value but because at that moment, it was pure, unadulterated joy unsullied by the outside world. Esports, though different in form and not the age-old game with centuries of history, can provide that joy for millions of fans across the globe.

It’s a virtual game for a virtual time.

Michael Brust is a deputy sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeB_DC.