Miami Heat forward Meyers Leonard on a recent night settled into the custom upholstered chair in his home theater in front of three large TV screens. He grabbed his Astro A40 headset, his Scuf Prestige Xbox controller and turned on his Blue Yeti microphone.
In a more normal time, Leonard would have just returned home after a game at Indiana and been getting ready to play the Oklahoma City Thunder next. The Heat would be ramping up for a playoff push. But now, with the novel coronavirus having shut down the NBA and most every other aspect of society, Leonard was sheltering in place with nowhere to go and nothing to do but participate in a “Call of Duty: Warzone” tournament hosted by Slam magazine on the streaming platform Twitch.
Waiting for the action to begin, Leonard scrolled through the chat window, questions rolling in from some 600 viewers on his channel.
Does his teammate Duncan Robinson go hard in the club?
“I don’t know, but I’m married,” Leonard said.
What was his workout plan?
“A whole lot of lifting weights.”
What kind of haircut did he have?
“A fly a — haircut!”
“We await what’s going on with the NBA and the world,” Leonard continued. “Trust me, if you’re coming here for content, you came to the right place. We are live, baby! Come on! Thank you for the follows.”
With the NBA season paused, a number of players have filled the void with streaming. On this night, Leonard was playing alongside Bronny James, LeBron’s son, and Mario Hezonja, a forward on the Portland Trail Blazers. The Sacramento Kings’ De’Aaron Fox, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Larry Nance Jr. and Josh Hart of the New Orleans Pelicans participated in that tournament as well.
Even before the pandemic, streaming was becoming an increasingly popular way for athletes to connect with fans. Leonard, Fox and Hart have long been regular presences on Twitch, where the conversation in the chat rooms feels intimate and players are less guarded. “Am I white?” Leonard read off the chat at one point. “Yes,” he answered with a chuckle.
During this new normal, streaming has become something more: it is part coping mechanism, perhaps the only way to maintain a sense of community during the pandemic; it’s also the one of the only ways to deliver new content to fans, many of whom are similarly locked in their homes; and it could also be a moment for gaming and streaming platforms to reach new relevance.
According to the analytics agency Esports Charts, the total number of unique streamers on Twitch that reached at least five concurrent viewers jumped almost 77 percent, from around 470,000 as of last week of February to more than 800,000 as of last week of March.
Beyond the individual players, the Phoenix Suns are simulating their season on NBA2K; the Wizards are doing the same and broadcasting the action on linear TV. A recent virtual NASCAR race featuring both gamers and former drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. was broadcast on Fox Sports 1 drew nearly a million viewers. Various streaming fundraisers, featuring the likes of Michael Vick, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Juju Smith-Schuster, the San Francisco 49ers’ Richard Sherman and other athletes have raised millions toward relief efforts.
Meanwhile, Las Vegas has legalized new types of esports betting.
“This additional funding will produce a virtuous cycle that encourages platforms such as Twitch, YouTube and ESPN+ to further invest in live esports rights, promotions and monetization,” wrote Matthew Ball, former head of strategic planning at Amazon Studios, in a recent essay. “It will make it easier for the major teams to raise capital, invest in their brands and talent, and attract fans.”
Ball also noted that college football grew in national popularity after it was boosted by the visibility and marketing power of ESPN. “One can be cynical about the fact that it took the cessation of real sports for electronic ones to go mainstream,” he wrote. “However, this overlooks just how important broadcaster and advertiser investment is to the success of all sports leagues.”
Sitting at the nexus of gaming, content and athlete engagement are players like Leonard and Hezonja. Several years ago, Leonard was at a summit put on by the NBA Players Association focused on life after basketball. He thought he’d learn about real estate ventures, but instead an esports panel caught his eye. “My eyes lit up,” he said. “I knew what I wanted to do after basketball.” Meyers spends much of his offseasons streaming now and is an investor in FaZe Clan, which sponsors streamers on Twitch and YouTube and fields a professional Call of Duty team. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post.)
Right now, Leonard is isolating with his wife, Elle. They meditate in the morning, workout, eat breakfast and then he usually decamps to the gaming room. On Monday afternoons, Leonard streams to raise money for covid-19 relief efforts. Other days, he’s playing in Twitch tournaments. He also dressed up in a Hazmat suit to film a rather colorful PSA with Elle.
“Social distancing? No problem,” Leonard said. “We’re not fighting down low in the post spreading coronavirus. We’re just chilling and playing video games.”
Hezonja streams for eight hours a day, living alone in his house in Portland. Asked during a phone interview if he was worried about loneliness setting in, Hezonja said, “It’s me and video games right now, I love it!”
Two weeks ago, both players were in the usual grind of the NBA season. Leonard was rehabbing an ankle injury. Hezonja was telling his Portland teammates to up their intensity for the season’s home stretch. Then Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the virus minutes before a March 11 game and the season ground to a halt. (The Suns’ Devin Booker reacted to the news while streaming live on Twitch.)
Leonard recalled following the news that night through the Twitter feed of ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowksi. “That’s how we get a lot of news,” he said. “Through Woj bombs.”
Several NBA teams have been tested for coronavirus despite shortages around the country and a number of players have tested positive. Hezonja’s first reaction to Gobert was to want to be tested because of the ease of spreading the virus between players, but after a meeting with public health officials in Oregon, he learned about a scarcity of tests.
“I was trying to say we should all get tested,” he said. “But then the health department [in Oregon], they said we only have 80 tests. We were shocked. The USA is like a powerhouse and it was shocking we have only 80 of those. We don’t want to see people who are dying and suffering and so I don’t want to say I should be tested.”
In the following days, his world shrunk. At first, Hezonja could work out at the team facility as long as there was only one ball in use, and one person in the weight room at a time. Then the league shuttered all team facilities; his favorite restaurant closed. Now he’s inside, like so many others.
“This is a very, very weird feeling,” Leonard said. “I’m not waking up and going to practice or shoot around, not ramping up film study. And you know this is a worldwide epidemic. Everything is shut down and I’m thinking to myself like, ‘okay, I was gearing up to come back from an ankle injury.’ Now it’s like, ‘Is the season gone?’”
In the meantime, there is plenty of Call Of Duty.
Said Hezonja: “I am happy for Warzone. I would say I’m addicted.”