Southern Gentleman

The Games People Play

By Jason Frye  |  Photography courtesy of AP News and thescore.com

As fall approaches and the pandemic looms on, coaches have had to prepare for the possibility of spectator-less sports.

Football and baseball fans brace yourselves: spectator sports, at least for the foreseeable future, may be spectator-less. If they happen at all. Some major football conferences already have announced their gridirons will be void of spectators and players this fall.

I know. I know. This is not good news, especially if you can’t go more than two days without hearing the roar of the crowd, the sweet crack of bat and ball, play-by-play announcers, and the ceaseless talk radio chatter about trades and stats.

Some of us measure the seasons by what game is on TV and mark time with annual events like the World Series, Super Bowl, and March Madness, but now we’ve been relegated to word-of-the-day calendars (we may as well use sundials and carve the date on a tree like we’re Survivor contestants).

But the reality is this: with COVID looming over every gathering and social distancing the new normal, fall sports will be anything but normal. The stadiums could be empty. We could hear the quarterback’s voice ring out like a carillon bell as he calls the plays. We might even witness a coach walk calmly from the dugout to home plate where a calm, hushed conversation with the umpire will change the tide of the game.

What would you do if you were coach?

Forget the pros, they’ve been playing for years. Think about your kids and about youth sports. With that in mind, dear reader, what would you do if you were a high school coach?

“Sports that play in the fall are in a much more difficult situation due to sanctions and restrictions placed on athletics,” says Nick Raynor, head baseball coach and PE teacher at Topsail High in Hampstead, North Carolina. “We missed the majority of the spring season and all of summer. That’s a lot of games and repetitions that student athletes missed out on considering our season begins in mid-February.”

Workouts. Strength training. Skill development. The act of building and being a part of a team. That’s what Coach Raynor’s 40-some players are missing and what hundreds of thousands of athletes across the country are facing. That and empty stands.

“Having limited spectators will not and should not affect us coaches on how we prepare. The goal is to teach student athletes how to focus, be a good teammate, and compete in a positive manner,” he says. “If a player can learn to focus, they will be successful in a packed stadium or with no one in the stands.”

That’s good news. The players get their game, the stories, and the character building. Even if fans have to watch from the parking lot or use Zoom to see the Pop Warner Football team take the field, the players get to play.

But if you’re still craving spectator sports, at least ones you can watch live, consider video games – not playing video games, but watching pro players play video games.

Southern gentlemen of a certain age may find this appealing. After all, many of us spent our formative years with a controller glued to our hands and as much as we might groan about screen time or tell the kids to “turn it off, go outside, and play,” we know the joy of Mario, the lure of Tomb Raider’s incredible puzzles, and the thrill of driving our alma mater to the NCAA championship with nothing but a PlayStation controller.

E-sports, that’s what they call video games when money gets involved, is, in a word, huge. Top E-sports tournaments deliver prize purses of $30 million or more, and in 2019 a 16-year-old won $3 million in the Fortnite championship. Sports games, fighting games like Tekken and Super Smash Bros., tactical shooters like Call of Duty, and those battle royal-style games like Fortnite and PUBG are huge in E-sports, but so are games like Magic: The Gathering, League of Legends, and Dota2 (which happens to be the most-played game on Steam, a sort of online video game console). Tournaments draw arena-filling crowds and every day millions of viewers tune in to Twitch and YouTube to watch their favorite gamers play and cheer (and jeer) them on in chat windows.

Which begs the question: is one cartoon character shooting a rocket launcher loaded with pumpkins at another cartoon character a sport? Probably, maybe even definitely if we consider table tennis or NASCAR – an endless series of left turns made at high speed in a car – to be sports. But it’s not the same.

Even when gamers play Madden NFL 20 or NBA 2K20, it’s not the same. The tinny, electronic noise of the on-screen crowd and the click of thumbs on buttons is a poor substitute for being out at the old ball game.

So, I, like you, hope we get this COVID thing under control. I want to have all my friends over for a cookout. I want to go see my friends’ kids chase a soccer ball. I want to drive up the road a piece and cheer the Topsail Pirates as Coach Raynor brings them onto the field.

I want this for me and you, but mostly for them – the athletes, so they don’t have to play to an empty stadium.

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