Traditional Sports in the Time of COVID

Alright, so someone said something about the MLB using game media to solve in-person baseball problems and now I’m here for a long one.

Anyone who has taken a seminar with me in the fall probably knows I’m a big hockey fan. I was disheartened when coronavirus led to the completely reasonable suspension of the NHL season ahead of the playoffs, but this disappointment was subdued by two things. First and most importantly, this was the obvious right choice. Traditional sports had to, have to if you ask me, be put on hold. Second, my favorite hockey team (Chicago*) didn’t stand a chance of making the playoffs, so my season was about to end anyway. Time went on and eventually, the NHL and seemingly every other major sports organization came out with a plan to return to physical sports in spite of increasing cases of COVID-19 globally. And, by sheer luck, Chicago made it into the last seed of the new playoff scheme. **

Through their #HockeyAtHome initiative, the NHL kept hockey fans engaged with the league ahead of their playoff announcement by organizing a Player Gaming Challenge involving 31 NHL players facing off in the most recent iteration of the League’s official video game franchise, NHL 20. Chicago’s right winger Alex DeBrincat and forward Drake Caggiula accepted the challenge, continuing the players’ pre-existing NHL 20 competition. It’s worth noting that both players used Chicago’s practice teams, often playing with their personal player models. In addition to blending the lines between traditional sports athletes and esports competitions, the partnership between EA Sports and the NHL donated $100,000 to coronavirus relief efforts.

Then, the playoffs. Chicago sneaks into a lucky 8th place slot. The first few games of the series against the Edmonton Oilers were, to put it lightly…weird. No crowd cheers or jeers and barely any background noise, save for the jarring sounds of playoff hockey—the sharp crackling of metal skates slicing through ice, the wapping sound of sticks hitting pucks, and serious trash talking from the ice and both benches. (More on that in a moment when we talk about the MLB.) The crowd is a critical component of the professional traditional sports institution. Players and other spectators (in-person or otherwise) draw on the energy (affect, really) put out by fans. Without the constant yelling, cheering, or booing of a crowd, it’s admittedly hard to differentiate a nationally broadcasted playoff game from a closed practice match. As I loosely mentioned, the NHL isn’t the only sports league to contend with this issue.

In a looser and more irresponsible manner, the MLB decided to return and play its season. As a lifelong baseball fan, part of the experience of watching a baseball game on the TV or in the ballpark is the crowd’s energy—affect. As a result of the COVID restrictions that precluded spectators from sitting in the ballpark (but not from the bars around the ballpark, mind you), the silence of these games pales in comparison to the irrepressible din of most MLB matchups. Even in pre-COVID TV broadcasts, the crowd competes with the game announcers for vocal space. At first, baseball in the time of coronavirus was deadly silent. As a result, it was really awkward. Announcers suddenly felt immense pressure to make the wittiest comments and constantly discuss the shock of watching the game with no crowd. However, the best tea brewed on the field. During the Cubs v. Brewers matchup on July 25, a fight broke out after simmering tensions, largely rooted in the two dugouts being able to hear one another in the absence of a roaring crowd. As @TalkinBaseball_ shared on Twitter, Brewers manager Craig Counsell explained that increased tensions or fighting between teams “is gonna be part of this season. . . Both dugouts can hear each other, and you know, umpires can hear everything. And so, there’s talking that goes on in a game, it’s just that you never hear it because the fans are here.”

So, what do major organizations like the NHL and MLB do? At first, they instituted a delay to give editors enough time to bleep out players and team staff, hoping that would at least mask the tension from affecting the viewing experience too much. As Bob Nightengale (one of the few individuals allowed to attend a game in person) wrote for USA Today, you can hear everything in the park, from balls landing in mitts to umpire calls. The delay didn’t do much. What helped the most, at least for spectators, is the fusion of traditional sports and digital sports.

As we have discussed on The Arena in the past, both NHL and MLB: The Show work to simulate the experience of managing a team’s play of a traditional sports match or to simulate the experience of fulfilling a particular role in that team. In the Show, that manifests in the roles of pitcher, batter, or any outfielder or baseman at different times throughout a match. Both games feature crowd sounds, music, ambient effects, and player sounds specific to the league teams’ actual arenas and stadiums. The NHL playoffs, taking place in a “bubble” in Ontario, feature matches played in either Scotiabank Arena (Toronto) or Rogers Place (Edmonton). In recent NHL broadcasts, spectators hear the sounds and music recorded in those spaces for the purpose of producing NHL 20.

These media management decisions interest me because I read them as an effort to draw on games that emulate elements of traditional sports to solve new problems arising with traditional sports management and broadcasting. In a way, this is not much different than ambient noise in a theme park. Aboard Jurassic Park River Adventure, the low sounds of dinosaur growls and bird chirps lull participants into willfully suspending disbelief. But it’s still miserably hot and you’re still in Orlando, no matter how hard the space seeks to immerse you in the narrative. Similarly, in the Cubs’ more recent home games against the St. Louis Cardinals, music and sounds recorded in Wrigley Field for MLB: The Show 20 provide semi-familiar background noise for the very players that assisted in the motion capture process for the very same game. Since their landmark, curse-breaking victory in 2016, Cubs players participated in motion capture work to represent their (very accurate) visages in The Show. For more on how this works, you can check out The Show streamer GoldGloveTV’s video on his motion capture work for The Show 18. I’m curious, then, about what these fusions of digital and physical sports media means for the future of sports broadcasting and playing.

As I’m watching the fourth game in the Chicago vs. Las Vegas playoff series, I see moments of broadcasting and production spectacle that simulate pre-COVID hockey grandeur, roaring fans and all. A close-up of the Chicago bench with just the right resonance and echo of NHL 20’s crowd recordings and the celebratory Chicago anthem produces a momentary viewing experience that simulates the energy of pre-pandemic hockey. Are achieving these moments of immersion the goal behind introducing media from official league video games for the benefit of spectators and players? In a way, it’s  a complex feedback loop: as league video games became increasingly realistic and began to employ motion capture using baseball players, they also recorded ambient sounds from the actual, physical spaces re-created in the video game. In the abrupt and unexpected absence of the physical fans in the stadiums the game developers recorded, the leagues turn to the video games they licensed to solve unexpected problems. This not only emphasizes the affective importance of fans more so than their capitalist value, but it also opens up space for further inquiry into the relationship between digital sports, traditional sports, eSports, spectator experiences, and broadcasting. After all, traditional professional sports broadcasting often seeks to emulate and enhance the experience of physically attending a game. However, the semi-feedback loop I described above suggests that the broadcast aims to completely obscure what the physical experience of attending a game would be like. If moments of immersion (like the close-up shot of the Chicago bench after a goal) that distract from empty seats and pre-recorded ambient sounds become the new focus of sports broadcasting, then as a spectator, I feel that on-ice narratives will become all the more important. When fans are physically in the arena, they are participants in the game. With fans at home, the number of players is drastically reduced, making every action of the remaining players all the more important, observed, chat-fodder.

*Important Sidebar: As a Chicago hockey fan, I strongly feel that the team should change their logo and team name. I am not an indigenous person, so I recognize that my stance on this is only so important. I feel like the very least the Chicago organization can do is put away the myth that the team somehow honors an indigenous leader by commodifying an Indianhead logo. I have far more I can say about this but would like to only say as much as is necessary to contextualize my position for this post, which is this: the NHL (and other sports organizations making similar moves) cannot adopt a “We Skate for Black Lives” slogan and expect that this branding move is a sufficient contribution to make hockey a more inclusive game for players, coordinators, administrators, casters, fans, and spectators. Speaking out against inaction, like that of the Chicago hockey organization, is an easy first step. All of that to say, I generally in writing and conversation refer to the team as simply Chicago’s hockey team.

**At the time of writing, the Las Vegas Golden Knights have been mercilessly wrecking Chicago and we’re hanging on by a thread. At the time of revising, Chicago lost the series 1-3.

Janelle Malagon

I am a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the English department’s Media, Cinema, and Digital Studies plan. My research in media is multifaceted, ranging from platform studies to game studies, but above all I am always interested in the relationship between media and the climate crisis.

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