A virtual tournament: Simulations fill the void with sports on hold

Courtesy Sam Adams/SWX

Sam Adams, a sports anchor at SWX in Spokane, Washington, was just as disappointed as his viewers that the NCAA tournament was canceled.

He understood, of course. But Eastern Washington, which went 23-8 in nearby Cheney, had a strong chance of making its third tournament in school history. And Gonzaga, of course, was 31-2 and set to be a No. 1 seed.

Adams had airtime to fill, but mostly he had a curiosity for what might've been. So he turned to Wolverine Studios, makers of PC sports simulation games, for help. Gary Gorski, the company's founder and lead developer, made a custom bracket for SWX in Draft Day Sports: College Basketball 20, allowing Adams to simulate the games and get realistic outcomes.

"I wanted realism," Adams said. "But selfishly, I wanted to run highlights."

This time, he turned to his 14-year-old son, Grant. Father and son used a modified version of NBA 2K on his PS4, downloading custom teams in college uniforms, and played the games on the courts where the NCAA tournament sites would have been. Grant would play and Sam would cut highlights to match the results the simulation provided. He would voice them on the newscast, just like he was recapping a real game.

"When we actually ran the highlights, it was like a weight had been lifted off our shoulders," he said. "Like, sports again!"

Without live sports, sports simulations are uniquely placed to keep fans occupied.

"It's a perfect distraction," said Gorski, of Draft Day Sports, which publishes simulations for pro and college football and baseball, along with golf. "Our games are so deep that you can sit there for a couple of hours. It's a great time to get lost in sports."

On Thursday, which would've been Major League Baseball's Opening Day, there were a variety of news outlets using Out of the Park to simulate games.

"We're all in this together," said Richard Grisham, chief operating officer for Out of the Park Baseball. "Maybe it's a little bit of a way to deal with what's going on. It definitely is for me."

The one common theme among them is they're a departure from the "button-mashers," or the console games with 3D graphics. The dynasty or franchise modes of console games just scratch the service of their older text-based counterparts.

"Sims are more about stats and strategy than they are about winning reflexes," said Chris Valius, director of GMGames.org, which chronicles and reviews such games. "Sims tap into the curiosity of how teams are constructed and coached."

The games have become increasingly sophisticated as they've aged, focusing on accuracy over graphics or arcade-style gameplay. Paul and Oliver Collyer started Championship Manager, a hugely successful soccer series, in London in 1992. Out of the Park Baseball developer Markus Heinsohn, who was a Major League Baseball fan in Germany, started OOTP 21 years ago. Jim Gindin, who produces some of the genre's best pro and college football games at Solecismic Software, launched Front Office Football in 1998. Gorski, a college basketball diehard, has produced his for 14 years.

And as analytics have moved from the realm of the geeks into mainstream sports acceptance, so have sims.

"Games like these feel more real than ever," Valius said, pointing to the watershed moment five years ago when OOTP Baseball secured MLB and Major League Baseball Players Association licenses, allowing real teams and players to be used. "We are seeing this niche gaming area make friends with league offices."

Count Boston Red Sox owner John Henry among those friends.

"I was amazed by the breadth and depth of it. Shocked, actually," he wrote to the developers. "I am absolutely fascinated by the historical and fictional options available. You enable someone to navigate through highly specific, adjustable scenarios through seasons -- only limited by your imagination."

Grisham said several MLB scouts have told him that they even use their game as another data point in their evaluation process, because the simulation can show player development.

In-game options are mind-boggling, with the thousands of configuration or customization options.

Solecismic's college football game The College Years features players from 14,000 public high schools in recruiting. Draft Day Sports' College Basketball 2020 features 353 real teams. Out of the Park includes all historical major and minor league seasons, including Negro leagues, since 1871.

"Our games are just deeper, and because we don't have the flashy graphics, we have to put the emphasis on making the AI realistic for a career-type sim," Gorski said. "You can't make the same type of trades in our game that you can make in 2K. The AI just won't let it happen. They don't have to put the resources into that. Our focus has to be on giving people that realistic experience over a long period of time."

Communities develop around each title, from the publishers' own forums, to Reddit, Discord and livestreams, where fans can play together. Seasons or games can be played against an AI opponent or in online leagues with players across the world. Gamers create downloadable custom teams, lineups or leagues and continue to modify them.

"It flatters me that they do it," Gorski said. "There's no payment, there's no money. They love the game so much that they'll spend the time to do it."

With an uncertain return for many leagues, simulations help many fill the void. Both Grisham and Gorski said they've seen an uptick in engagement, gaining new fans who weren't repeat buyers.

"I can't hang with the kids in 'MLB The Show.' But I can tinker with the lineup," Grisham said. "I can do that all day long. It's the grown-up's version of a video game instead of Fortnite."

In Spokane, Adams shows the highlights on his newscasts corresponding to the same schedule the tournament would've been played. Only he (and Grant) know who wins each game. If a game was due to start at 7 p.m., he teases it on the 5 o'clock news and shows it later in the night. The routine is comforting.

"I spend as much time doing this as I did the last 11 years in the tournament covering Gonzaga," he said. "It's just a different kind of work."

And producing the highlights has been a new sports bonding experience.

"I guess," he said, "it's the coronavirus' version of father and son playing catch."