addByline("Jackson Filyo", "WashingtonWizards.com");
Just over one month ago, the sports world screeched to a halt as the NBA, NHL and leagues everywhere suspended operations in wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. With the sports calendar suddenly blank and a return to normalcy to be determined, business was on hold. Broadcast slots were open and fans, isolated at home with more time than ever before, were left craving any bit of sports-centric entertainment that could be offered.
Monumental Sports and Entertainment (MSE) and NBC Sports Washington had a plan: virtual simulations of both the Wizards’ and Capitals’ remaining regular season games through NBA 2K20 (Take-Two Interactive) and NHL 20 (EA Sports).
Zach Leonsis, Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for MSE and GM of Monumental Sports Network, says the idea to launch virtual simulations came “almost instantaneously and independently” from both MSE and NBC Sports Washington and served as a win for both parties.
“I think we both quickly agreed that this was a good idea to pursue,” Leonsis said. “This is an unsettling experience for everyone across our country and obviously in our region, the DMV. Any sense of normalcy, any outlet for entertainment, any outlet for being a fan is really a good thing. We’re always trying to think about our teams as a public trust and our brands, the Capitals and the Wizards, are beloved by fans. There’s an emotional connection to them. When that connection is taken away, it can be an unsettling experience. We wanted to provide fans something fun, something that could provide some sense of normalcy.”
“Then from our side, the Wizards and the Monumental side, we wanted to be a really good partner to NBC Sports Washington,” Leonsis said. “They’re not able to broadcast our live games as scheduled at this point in time. We wanted to do our best to support the network and give them great programming so that we can continue to engage with fans.”
Damon Phillips, GM of NBC Sports Washington, noted that already-existing infrastructure and MSE’s years-long commitment to esports expedited the process.
“The thing I was most impressed by was the speed to market,” Phillips said. “It all started with the vision that we collectively had. We’re lucky at NBC Sports Washington because we are partnered with an ownership group that is one of the most innovative in all of sports. There was a clear vision. We are also lucky that, inside Monumental Sports & Entertainment, there was a group that was actually capable of pulling off the simulation. It was a perfect storm.”
The NBA announced its suspension of the season on March 11. The Wizards launched their first simulated game on March 21 against the Bucks. The “speed to market” that Phillips referenced was key in making the simulated season feel as real as possible. The fewer games missed, the more it served as an actual replication of the Wizards’ season. Behind the quick work was MSE’s esports division, led by Andrew McNeill. Once the plan was set, it was on McNeill and his team to carry the execution, to provide NBC Sports Washington with a simulation package they could work with, under all the normal parameters of a TV broadcast that don’t normally apply to video games – and most importantly, to make it feel real.
“We went through the process of loading up (the game), figuring out the schedules, making sure the rosters were as up to date as possible and figuring out the settings for the game,” McNeill said. “The NBC Sports Washington folks had a specific time of gameplay that they were looking at to filter into their broadcast time. So we had to fiddle with game speed, length of periods and quarters and just figure out…how best to come up with a length of game that was going to be best suited for NBC Sports Washington.”
Beyond just the mechanics of the game, MSE and NBC Sports Washington wanted to go the extra mile to ensure that the simulation was as close to the real thing as it could be. McNeill said his team leaned heavily on the teams’ marketing departments to assure that the adjustable branding elements of the game, such as jersey variations, matched the occasion. If the Wizards were going to wear their City Edition jerseys for a particular game before the announcement of the season’s suspension, that’s the jersey they would wear in that game’s simulation.
Rosters were also adjusted to make sure that lineups were accurate and that players injured in real life would not appear in the simulated game.
“We tried to make it as true to life as possible,” McNeill said.
Leonsis credited the multi-departmental effort put in by both sides to make the game experience replicate that of a normal game night experience: highlights, analysis, score updates and commentary from players. The team even ran a bobblehead giveaway the night Bradley Beal’s Black Panther-themed bobblehead was set to be distributed at Capital One Arena and provided discount codes to jerseys in the virtual finale against the Pacers on Wednesday.
The Wizards played a total of 13 simulated games over what would have been the final month of the NBA’s regular season, capped with a win over the Pacers on Wednesday night. The games did their part to fill both a broadcast and wider business gap, gave fans a new point of engagement and provided some sense of regularity to an otherwise upended sports schedule. The impact did not go unnoticed.
“I received a number of phone calls from other regional sports networks to ask how we pulled this off,” Phillips said. “I also got calls from some teams as well. I think everyone is definitely looking to fill that void that’s out there. We were able to move pretty quickly on this. I think the (Phoenix) Suns were doing some sort of esports on digital platforms, but we were the first to do it on linear TV.”
With the simulated season now over, it’s back to the drawing board for all parties involved with filling the content void. Classic Wizards games from years past and coverage of the WNBA Draft are among the D.C. basketball programming options on the horizon. Luckily, for fans who enjoyed the broadcasted 2K experience, they won’t have to wait long for more. Leonsis noted that the NBA 2K League, which was set to tip off for its third season in late March but was delayed by the COVID-19 outbreak, is nearing a return.
“The NBA 2K League is about to begin remote play for their regular season closer to the end of this month,” Leonsis said. “I think they’re going to be producing a lot of games…that will hopefully be a really great live game experience.”