Teams Go Virtual With In-House Staff and Outside Experts

    • From the Phoenix Suns consulting a gamer to LAFC hiring an esports production company, teams are leaning on experts to get set up in esports.
    • Those with in-house gaming divisions, like the Orlando Magic, are leveraging their built-in infrastructure.

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As sports teams have made the transition from live games to virtual events and simulations, they’ve leaned on their gaming departments, pro gamers, and professional companies to get them quickly online.

Right as the sports world was shutting down because of the coronavirus, the Phoenix Suns jumped out in front with their plans to simulate the season via NBA2K games streamed on Twitch. To launch the effort, the team called on professional gamer Antonio Saldivar and a local gaming company for advice on equipment, broadcasting and backend support.

“They helped get it off the ground and the success was so much in part to the speed and timing of our efforts,” Suns Social Media Senior Manager Allison Harissis said. “It’s been one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises.”

Being a first-mover helped the Suns, so did the idea to “cross-pollinate” with influencers in other industries. At least three of the team’s streams had a million or more viewers, including 3.1 million by the team’s guard, Ty Jerome.

Recently, LAFC announced its partnership with esports production company Allied Esports to produce a 10-game FIFA20 series to support Southern California COVID-19 response efforts. The LAFC Gaming Charity Challenge Series is a weekly event, barring prior eMLS obligations. The decision to go with a company to help set up the streams was in large part due to the geographic distance between all the parties involved and a desire for higher production quality. 

“I was looking for an agency to assist and reached out to Twitch for their recommendation,” Alex Sale, LAFC senior manager of business development and special projects, said. “We take fan engagement very seriously, and it has to be authentic, so it was important to make sure we were going to put on the best show.”

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Sale said the numbers have “blown” him away since launching on March 29. The first several broadcasts had 250,000 unique viewers. When they’re broadcast, however, has mattered. The first two on Saturday and Sunday afternoons drew the best viewership, respectively, outperforming the Friday primetime broadcast.

“There was still good engagement, and feedback and the games were entertaining, but primetime is not the answer,” Sale said. 

Allied, which already has developed one new virtual business venture during the coronavirus outbreak, looks like it might have found another in helping other entities put on live-streamed events.

Allied Chief Executive Officer Jud Hannigan said the company is in talks with a variety of other organizations for similar endeavors. Hannigan said it’s largely guiding them through the first foray into online streaming with technical capabilities, while also offering advice about how to produce an engaging online broadcast.

“One thing we’re sensing on the heels of this outbreak [is that] traditional sports and entertainment properties are bringing on gaming people inside to leverage and speak to that audience, and it’s exciting for us as a platform,” Hannigan said. “For a long time, traditional sports were looking at gaming and esports in a variety of ways, but it was on their radar, not something they’re active in, and this just changes that overnight. It’s the only form of activation that can happen.”

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Other teams have been able to lean on their existing gaming divisions for their virtual efforts, like the Orlando Magic’s Magic Gaming NBA2K League team.

Magic Gaming head coach Jonah Edwards said the biggest challenge has been the change of venue, from a ground-floor studio in the Magic’s headquarters to two three-bedroom apartments for the players, while Edwards watches from home. 

Edwards said he could see some teams having infrastructure issues and needing outside assistance if they weren’t already online with gaming initiatives.

Otherwise, Edwards said, content expectations haven’t changed. Beyond normal 2K obligations, Edwards said the team has also held a few additional events, like the Help From Home Charity Stream with the team, Magic center Mo Bamba, community ambassador Bo Outlaw, and other influencers. The series of Twitch streams on April 8 raised more than $9,000 for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida.

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“There are more people on it than maybe before,” Edwards said of the NBA team’s influence. “The 2K League hosted a Three For All Showdown, and we made the semifinal, and I got eight emails from staff within the Magic I might not hear from otherwise.” 

Sale said a major piece of the LAFC series has been finding ways to integrate current partners to help drive value while soccer on the field is on hold. Toyota has since become the presenting sponsor of the virtual series.

“It’s been fun for me when we started diving into eMLS six months ago one of the boxes to check was new partnership assets,” Sale said. “Even without the big numbers we’ve had, it’s a platform they’re interested in getting behind.”

Sale expects the focus on live-streaming games to continue even once the full soccer schedule returns, as a way to reach a different demographic and enhance other aspects of the business. 

“This is something that will continue; imagine playing a regular-season game against the Galaxy and the day before we play online to extend that rivalry,” he said. “It’s super positive with the first couple streams and an international audience. We’re definitely realizing and seeing the interest.”