As the timeline for the coronavirus hiatus lengthened, Major League Rugby felt it was right to be among the first organizations to completely shut down its season.
With more than half of the league’s players from overseas, the MLR decided to move the rest of the season to an online competition on the video game Rugby 20, with each team selecting a player to play in a makeshift tournament.
“At the end of the day, it looked like it would go on to the end of the season, and we wanted to keep our players safe,” Bill Goren, deputy commissioner of Major League Rugby, said. “From our end, over the last three years, we’ve built a strong fanbase, and we want to keep that going. This allows players to network with fans, along with good back and forth between the players.”
Goren said the move to video games for teams and leagues makes sense since it aligns with the hobbies of the young players. Each player representative from the 12 teams then drafted a national team to play with during the tournament, since MLR is not yet included in the game.
All the games will be streamed on the league’s Twitch channel, but also broadcast on For the Fans sports network, an online broadcaster that offers a wide array of sports content, including rugby.
The first broadcast on Twitch drew more than 900 viewers, and FTF had 37,000 viewers across its streaming platforms, according to For the Fans President Dave Gross.
FTF hasn’t broadcast video games before this event, so there was some learning on the fly, Gross said.
“Once we heard they were contemplating canceling the season, we knew the void it would create for fans and sports fans in general,” Gross said. “When they told us this concept, we thought it was an incredible way to keep fans engaged and show the personalities of the players through interacting with fans starved for original content.”
Gross said the network spent three days getting ready for the first broadcast, which had several hiccups.
“When we launched our first network in 2016, we made every mistake you could imagine and invented a few new ones,” he said. “After a couple of weeks, you would think we’d been on the air for 50 years. By the time we hit next weekend, we have the confidence we’ll be running smooth.”
The league isn’t looking at the video game tournament as a way to create, or save, revenue – instead, making it a charity event for the Feeding America COVID-19 Response Fund – and the championship won’t be recorded in the league’s record books.
“This is about entertainment and engagement first,” Goren said. “We haven’t been focused on revenue as we’ve been focused on getting it into place. But we haven’t had one sponsor call us to walk away from their relationship with the league.”
The tournament will run as a five-round round-robin through April 4 and playoffs beginning April 6.
Beyond the streaming video game component, FTF will also be airing past Major League Rugby games, with a twist to help educate the American sports fans who aren’t familiar with rugby, Gross said.
“We’ll bring in analysts, players, and coaches to help break down these games,” he said. “This is a good opportunity for MLR as they move forward, expanding, and attracting new fans. We can use this time to teach people how rugby is played.”