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Kings turn to video game simulations to keep fans engaged amid coronavirus shutdown

Jack Harris

The latest Kings broadcast began with familiar voices.

Play-by-play announcer Alex Faust set the table at the top of Sunday afternoon’s show, dropping nuggets of research into his opening lines. Analyst Jim Fox took over from there, serving up a scouting report for a game that wasn’t supposed to be.

The two men weren’t previewing a real contest, the NHL season still suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak. Instead, talking into cameras from the safety of their homes, they were trying their best to make a virtual substitute feel like the real thing.

In this absence of live action, the Kings have turned to video game simulations to keep some semblance of routine. Every time a real Kings game is scheduled to take place, such as Sunday’s delayed meeting with the Chicago Blackhawks, the team instead stages a virtual rendition viewed by thousands on an online stream.

Laugh if you want. Three weeks ago, the idea of livestreaming video games to a sports-deprived fan base would have sounded comical. But with almost all real sports postponed for the foreseeable future, the industry has turned to virtual simulations to help fill the void.

“It doesn’t replace hockey in full,” Faust said. “But it’s a fun way to get together and talk shop for a little while.”

On March 11, Faust signed off on Fox Sports West Kings’ broadcast knowing it might be the last one for a while. Earlier that night, Rudy Gobert’s positive test for COVID-19 brought the NBA season to a halt. The next morning, the NHL followed suit. Since then, the entire sports world has stood still, turning sports-centric video games into a rare instrument of relief.

Most teams in the NHL and NBA have staged something similar to the Kings’ simulations, creating content from video games such as EA Sports’ “NHL 20” or 2K Sports’ “NBA 2k20.” NASCAR and Formula One have turned iRacing’s virtual program into expertly produced television events, including a nationally televised race Sunday on Fox. Athletes themselves have connected with fans through online platforms such as Twitch, de facto video game social media channels.

At a time when arenas sit empty and fans are stuck sitting at home, the virtual world is offering one of the best escapes from the real one.

“I love watching our virtual [Kings] play,” one Kings fan recently commented on Twitter. “I'm going through a rough patch at the moment and need these games.”

These aren’t the same as legitimate eSports endeavors, with professional gamers and organized competitions. Streams such as the Kings’ are far more informal, yet ingenious in their own way too. For the Kings, “Bailey” the team mascot (the real-life creation of senior manager of game presentation and events Tim Smith) began working on the idea, controlling the Kings’ team against computer-simulated opponents.

After the first stream received rave reviews, the Kings’ broadcast crew was invited to get involved. Now, the streams open with an original pre-recorded package, include intermission reports, postgame shows and in-game video interviews with actual Kings players themselves, and are finding a steady audience online. Sunday’s game, a 5-3 Kings win, drew more than 4,000 views on Twitter. Some highlight packages posted by the team have exceeded 10,000.

“Initially, I thought this was going to be impactful for a small subset of fans who interacted with Bailey’s Twitter account,” Faust said. “But it really caught on.”

Other hockey teams are putting their own spin on the “NHL 20” simulations. The Ducks stage similar online games in place of their actual schedule. The Washington Capitals’ cable affiliate, NBC Sports Washington, shows streams on its television airwaves. And the New Jersey Devils have published game stories around each virtual result on their team website.

“It’s great to see that the product we poured our heart and soul into be leveraged by the teams and promoted by the NHL,” said Sean Ramjagsingh, EA Sports’ executive producer of the game. “A ton of people are for the most part home right now. So it’s really cool to see the way different teams are actually leveraging the game, creating content.”

The “NHL 20” video game already had a lot of cachet within the hockey community, a game praised for its realistic images and user-friendly gameplay. Ramjagsingh has been working on the title since the 2009 edition, involved in each annual improvement – touches such as adding the threading on jerseys and light reflection in the glass are some of his proudest – that has elevated the visual experience.

“Those kinds of nuanced things that make the experience look so realistic are just the [game production] team members taking ownership of those things,” Ramjagsingh said. “Pushing the product to make it better on its own. I think that’s the real driving force behind the NHL team, just the passion that we have to replicate the world of hockey.”

And as long as actual games are kept on hiatus, the video game streams will remain one of the few suitable substitutes that the sports world can share as one.

“We all wanted to pitch in and bring a little bit of fun,” Faust said. “It showed that, ‘Hey, we’re still here. We’re all still family. This Kings family will get through this period together.’ However much levity we can bring to the situation is what we’re trying to do.”