Players were sent home; training facilities were closed and an eerie feeling was felt throughout the nation as the possibility of a world without sports had become a reality.
It was the morning of March 12th, less than 24 hours since the NBA had officially suspended their season and the feeling throughout Talking Stick Resort Arena couldn’t be described as anything more than empty.
While much larger concerns were rising throughout the world, the loss of sports, something that unites people in a way few others things can, was taken away as people began secluding themselves for their safety and the protection of others.
Sports are common ground. Beyond race, religion, sexual orientation, age, etc., it provides a platform for people to drop their differences and come together as one, but in a time where people needed to join together more than ever, sports were no more.
There was a void that needed to be filled, an opportunity to provide even an ounce of joy and a distraction in these trying times and the Phoenix Suns social media team had an idea.
“[Social Media Senior Manager Allison Harissis] and the social team thought beyond traditional broadcast and what are other ways to give to fans,” Suns Chief Marketing & Communication Officer Dean Stoyer said. “We knew the sports world would take a timeout and how do we give everyone a way to continue to enjoy sports the best way.”
Harissis and the rest of the social team were in search of a way to keep fans entertained, provide a solution for their partners and unite Suns fans to stick together through all their current struggles.
“That’s what we’re trying to explore,” Stoyer said. “We entered new territory and are looking at monetization, broader engagement, and partner integration. Those are the next steps.”
Their solution: continuing their season on the virtual hardwood through NBA 2K20 on Twitch.
However, the Suns didn’t have a Twitch channel, they had no professional gamers on call and they had less than 24 hours to get the whole program up and running. While the normal saying is, “It doesn’t happen overnight”, the Suns had no choice, but to make it happen overnight.
“We worked through the night, Friday morning, and continued to amplify it,” Harissis said. “I appreciate people coming together and rallying behind us.”
“If I didn't have the trust in [our social team and if I didn't know that they are hands down the best in the league, we wouldn't have moved as quickly as we did,” Stoyer said. “Their instincts were right. We had to figure out a lot quickly. If we hesitated, if we waited, we wouldn't have been as successful."
Prior to the season postponement, the Suns next game was scheduled for March 14th against the Dallas Mavericks. But instead, the Suns tipped-off virtually against the Mavericks on March 13 and made history in a time of uncertainty.
The stream went viral.
The game between Saldivar and Lawrence “Buddy” Norman drew over 221,000 views as the Suns followers on their newly-created Twitch channel jumped to 2,400. That was just the beginning though.
“The results of the first Twitch stream have changed the conversation within the organization for the current and future context of how do we insert that into our overall strategy?” Harissis said.
Not only were Suns fans tuning in, but fans of all teams and all sports, eager to seek the thrill of a live game, began to watch, engage and breakdown the performances of the players, the teams and the overall stream.
“The Suns were suddenly at the forefront of content creation for not just the NBA, but for all sports leagues that had delayed or canceled their seasons,” Arda Ocal of ESPN.com wrote. “Multiple teams have followed suit, but the Suns were certainly leading the charge.”
There was excitement and the Suns wanted to build on that. While the season continued virtually on its regular schedule, the participants manning the controls began to rotate providing new fans and new experiences for each tip-off.
The Suns joined forces with the gaming community as Saldivar was just one of many to take the controls for Phoenix. Curtis “Bud” Lane was a part of three of the most thrilling matches, including an overtime battle.
“It was great working with the Suns,” Lane said. “I was able to see how an organization was run from the social media side of things. The social media team worked harder than many know. It felt like I was a part of an NBA organization. I wanted to do my best to represent the Suns in a positive way.”
While Lane is a professional gamer and makes his living in front of audiences on streams, the opportunity to work with the Suns was something he never thought he would experience and came as a surprise.
“I was shocked!,” Lane said. “I couldn’t believe I was getting a chance to represent an NBA organization multiple times. After two nail-biting games I was to able to finally bring home a win for the Suns. Seeing all of the tweets, comments, and replies really brought a smile to my face. The fans are passionate.”
The smile that Lane received in the process reflected what Valley sports fans were feeling as well as Lane assisted the Suns in bringing at least an ounce of sports back into the world.
“The joy of bringing a version of basketball to fans across the world is so amazing to me,” Lane said. “To have the fans root you on and seeing that the close games really had everyone on the edge of their seats made me want to do my best. I’m hoping the fans enjoyed it as much as the players on the sticks. We know there is a void without sports. We we wanted to do our best.”
Professional gamers weren’t the only avenue the Suns tapped into though. From Suns players such as Mikal Bridges, Ty Jerome, Frank Kaminsky and Tariq Owens to other Valley sports representatives like Brittney Griner, Chase Edmonds, Bryon Murphy Jr. and Owusu-Ansah Kontoh, the Suns branched out to different sports, different markets and different audience in order to provide a little something for everyone, not just Phoenix basketball fans.
Suns Players: Mikal Bridges (vs Matisse Thybulle), Ty Jerome (vs Josh Okogie), Frank Kaminsky III (vs Brian Bowen II), Tariq Owens (vs Darius Garland)
Mercury: Six-time WNBA All-Star and reigning WNBA scoring champion Brittney Griner (vs Jewell Loyd)
#AllAZ: Arizona Cardinals running back Chase Edmonds (vs Shaq Laweson) and cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. (vs Irv Smith Jr.), NFL safety and Suns fan Tony Jefferson (vs Keenan Allen), Phoenix Rising defender Owusu-Ansah Kontoh (vs Djordje Mihailović)
Fashion: Sneakerhead Jacques Slade (vs Qias Omar)
Professional 2K Gamers: Curtis “Bud” Lane, Antonio Saldivar
Bridges, Jerome and Kaminsky given the opportunity to control themselves led to some classic lines throughout their streams as they battled with their virtual persona.
Bridges: “Give me three, ‘kal!” before he learns it was a long two-pointer and adds, “get behind the line, bro!”
Kaminsky: “One-man fast break!” before adding “oh man, I am slow”
Jerome: “Dunk that, Ty!” before laughing as his virtual self attempt a layup on a wide-open look.
While the steams were light-hearted and fun, the results were astonishing and went beyond what could have even been imagined.
Through streaming on Facebook, Twitter and Twitch, the 17 games combined for a ground-breaking 7.9 million views, including 3.1M viewers for Jerome’s matchup against Minnesota’s Josh Okogie. At the conclusion of the final game, the Suns official Twitch channel gained 6,740 new total followers after starting from scratch just a few weeks prior.
“That’s how professional basketball looks under a national coronavirus lockdown as fans deprived of their favorite showdowns go online for a fix,” Christina Settimi of Forbes.com wrote. “It’s yet another indication that the pandemic, while currently putting the global economy on ice, could be leading to massive shifts in consumer patterns and trends. Most of the fans watching were new—specifically, 18-to-34-year-old affluent, digital-first fans. That’s the holy grail for every graying sports league right now.”
Halfway through the virtual season, the Suns continued to elevate the Twitch experiment by continuing its partnership with 98.7 Arizona Sports to air the first-ever Twitch games on the radio with play-by-play man Jon Bloom and color analyst Tim Kempton calling the simulated action.
"It's been probably one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises of this strange period that we're in," said Stoyer, the Suns' chief marketing and communications officer. "Every week, we had responses from other teams and leagues asking us how we've been so successful."
The concept of streams taking the current place of live sporting events has erupted to global scale, including ESPN hosting an all-player NBA 2K20 tournament in which some of the top stars of the NBA tipped-off on the virtual hardwood. The championship game ended up featuring the two Suns in the tournament in Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, with Booker walking away with the crown after finishing with a perfect record.
“While Devin Booker can now call himself the king of NBA 2K among NBA players, the Phoenix Suns can also lay claim to the content championship crown among franchises in the NBA and perhaps all of sports,” Ocal said.
In a time of fear with a future of uncertainty, any ounce of joy mixed with togetherness is needed to keep moving forward. And while from the outside these streams may just seem like video game simulations of reality, they have been able to provide Suns fans and sports fans from around the globe a glimpse of what they are striving for as they bond together during a time of distancing.
“You find new ways to survive these moments and provide entertainment and distractions,” Stoyer said. “If you look at it the right way, it shapes a new way of thinking.”