Are eSports the future of sport?

I have never played a cricket video game. It’s not from a particular aversion to video games as a whole. I enjoy video games, especially in these weird times, as they are one of the few things that truly allows me to turn my brain completely off. (Video games and sleep being the two things that accomplish that goal.) I also don’t tend to avoid sports video games, I have played FIFA for hours just like everyone else has. Though nowadays I only own a Wii U, which isn’t really conducive to licensed sports games.

But I have never played a cricket video game. Again, not from lack of desire or out of some sort of intellectual snobbery. It’s just that most cricket games are not licensed to play on North American systems, so they are simply not available for me, at least without a lot of effort and money. And, from what I have read over the years, cricket games are simply not great. The sport, for the outsider, looks to be the perfect set up for a good video game, but they are just too many nuances. All those things that make the game great are also the things that keep it from porting well onto a modern gaming engine.

Which is a bummer. Because I see people getting their baseball and soccer fixes via video games, and that’s just something not available to me right now. I would love to fire up a (probably flawed) cricket video game and spend a few hours with my mind shut off. But instead like most I am relegated to old highlights and replays of matches. Which is fine. But even though I don’t always know the outcome of the replays I am watching, it is still not the same as a live match. Nothing really takes the place of live cricket. I would take a boring live match over an exciting replay any day of the week and twice on Sundays, as they say.

Like a lot of sports right now, however, cricket is pivoting and looking for just about any way to make a little money in these bizarre times. And so they have married the two things above — video games and live cricket — and are now bringing us full video game matches, with the teams piloted by cricketers.

Willow TV’s “eCricket” tournament kicks off tonight, and The Cricketer Magazine’s “Quarantine Cup” is up and running now. (The Willow tourney is sponsored by Betway, which means people are able to bet on these matches, I would guess, which is bonkers). I watched a match of the latter tournament on Friday afternoon, and I have to admit, I was entertained. It was fun. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, but it was pleasant, and the commentary was “live” and was both informative — nice trivia and stats on the players on each squad — but also tongue-in-cheek, which I appreciated. I mean, it’s video games, you can’t take it too seriously. Anyway, it was cricket, more or less, and it was fine. I will probably watch another.

I am not sure how I feel about it though.

For now, of course, it’s a marriage of convenience. There literally can’t be live cricket right now without people getting sick.  And it might be months and months before it can safely return, and it might not ever return to what it was before, at least not until a vaccine is ready. And so cricket is doing what it needs to do to bridge that gap for the fans, and these “eTournaments” are simply one of the only options right now.

But, it worries me. I know the normal we once knew will never return, and that we will have to get used to a new normal (which we will, and it will be fine), but what if — and this is a big what if — cricket boards and sponsors and franchises realize that people will tune in no matter what, whether it’s a super expensive live match requiring 22 players, support staff, coaches, and a big fancy million dollar stadium, or two people playing a cricket video game in their living rooms and then streaming the match to Willow or Sky. They would save billions, and make billions more.

You scoff, but tell me one time when owners or cricket boards chose the game over the dollar. Just one time. I can’t think of one. This is late stage capitalism, folks, money gets what money wants.

The slow shift from live sports to eSports has been a fear of mine for a long time. Yeah, you suck the humanity and personality and nuance from the games, but they are still games. People will still watch (see above) and gamble (see above) and pay for streaming services (Willow is still taking their money from my account each month). And now with the virus it feels like we have fast forwarded to what before the virus was a nightmare decades in the future. Not now. Not next month. But after a long, slow move from live sports to video games, so slow we barely even know it’s happening until it’s done. Kind of, in some ways, similar to what’s already happening to cricket, as we mourn the quiet and protracted death of first class cricket, its throat pinned under T20’s heavy boot.

Like everything in the entire world, live sport will need to adjust to this new normal. And that adjustment might very well mean the death of live sport under the heavy boot of safe, inexpensive eSport.

You are shaking your head right now. I am being another Chicken Little you are saying to yourself, or maybe even out loud depending on how many people you are self isolating with. And you are right. The virus is not the end of the world. We will not be left with a hell scape dystopian husk of a planet when this thing finally burns through us. Restaurants will come back. Schools and beaches will reopen. We will see family again, we will hug family again. We will travel again, board planes and see the world. We will mourn the dead and life will go on. Different, but still a world with smiles and laughter and friends on patios overlooking rivers in distant cities.

But. Large crowds? They might not come back. It might just not be worth it. Concerts could go away forever, moving to live streams from artists’ living rooms. And sports. Sports might not come back, at least how we knew them. We might not ever rise as one again with 50,000 of our closest friends, as the home team completes a fight back from the brink. Sports will come back, but the games might be behind closed doors, I think we can probably all agree with that sad consequence, at least for the foreseeable future. And closed door games are one step closer to the terrifying scenario described above: two people who never held a cricket bat in their hands, maneuvering pixels around, as we cheer and bet and spend.

I am being a bit of a pessimist, I know that. Though I think it’s important to remember that when the games do come back, we need to cherish them. Show up for live games. Hold this game we love as close as we can. And go out and play it. Keep the tradition alive, the simple tradition of a game played by humans — broken, sad, flawed, beautiful humans. When this over, when this is all over, and we are moving away into the new normal — a new normal that no one can foresee in detail right now — we need to make sure that the replacements we turned to in this time do not become part of that new normal. And that’s true not just for cricket, but for so many other things. So much will have to change after the virus, and some things will have to go away forever, but not everything, and we need to make sure we keep the things that fall into the second group from slipping into the first, which, sadly, might be the default setting for most of what exists.

There’s a famous anecdote about the O.J. Simpson trial, which took over day time TV in the mid-90s, preempting all the soap operas that used to populate those time slots. And when the TV schedule returned to normal, the soap opera viewers didn’t come back. They had gotten used to not watching them, and moved on, these “stories” that they used to watch religiously faded from their routine and when normalcy returned, those routines had already pivoted to a new normal.

Humans are resilient creatures. We can get used to anything. And that is a part of our nature that allows us to survive trying times. But let’s make sure we don’t get used to not having cricket, or to having a soulless replacement that we only turned to while the fires burned. Let’s make sure — when it’s safe — that live cricket comes back, and reminds us all why it is one hundred million times better than any alternative.

Like all things cricket — like all things important and good — we need to take care of it, not just in the good times, but when times are dark, and tragedy is everywhere. Especially then even.

Keep watching those highlights, everyone, and remembering.

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