D.C. United’s esports player, Mohamed “KingCJ0” Alioune Diop
D.C. United’s esports player, Mohamed “KingCJ0” Alioune Diop Credit: Kathryn Riley

Dan Walker didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t this.

When the media officer for Leyton Orient, a soccer club in London, first came up with the idea to organize a FIFA 20 tournament on PlayStation 4, he envisioned 64 teams joining. Even so, Walker figured they might secure only 32, a number made up mostly of lower-league English clubs like themselves.

Then RKC Waalwijk, a first-division club in the Netherlands, claimed a spot in the tournament less than two hours after Leyton Orient announced the idea. That’s when Walker and his manager, Luke Lambourne, began to recognize how much attention the tournament would attract—attention coming from fans craving anything resembling sports in a world put on hold as it battles the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The tournament registration blew past 32 teams. Sixty-four came and went. And as clubs from around the world jumped on board, including some from Australia and Turkey, and D.C. United in the U.S., Leyton Orient’s small competition grew into 128 teams.

It’s a rise representative of what’s going on locally in D.C. and worldwide, with teams and fans searching for an outlet that video games have stepped in to provide, be it simulations aired on TV or an esports tournament involving clubs from 19 countries.

“With sports sort of being canceled right now, this is a really good opportunity for streamers and esports to sort of rise in that void and give the fans a taste of what they’re missing, if you will,” says Kyle Curley, a digital content coordinator for D.C. United.

As of early Monday afternoon, the World Health Organization has reported that over 14,500 people have died from the coronavirus worldwide, and there are at least 31,500 confirmed cases in the U.S. With the continuing spread of virus, much of daily life has ground to a halt.

Sports—often a pleasant distraction—are at a standstill, too. So teams like Leyton Orient are finding creative ways to still produce content and attract viewership, leading to what’s been coined the Ultimate Quaran-Team Cup.

“It’s massive for fans to still have engagement to their club and still have that kind of competitive edge that hopefully this competition is going to give,” Walker says. “And then from our point as part of the media team, I think we’ve really stumbled onto something.”

Just two days after the tournament was announced, D.C. United snuck in as one of the final teams to make the field, joining Orlando City as American representatives.

“It is an opportunity that we need to make good use of,” says Mohamed “KingCJ0” Alioune Diop, a professional esports player who represents D.C. United. “Of course, it’s not ideal, since everything is canceled. But it is what it is and we just have to make the best of it.”

It’s an opportunity to expand esports’ viewership, and a plethora of teams and sports leagues are joining in.

On Sunday, NASCAR drivers competed in a virtual race. Professional players from a slew of sports have taken to Twitch streaming while their actual profession is paused. The NBA announced a three-on-three tournament played on NBA 2K, beginning March 27. And NBC Sports Washington and Monumental Sports Network have begun to televise simulated versions of Capitals and Wizards games using NBA 2K20 and NHL 20.

The expanded promotion of esports has been in the cards for a while, says Damon Phillips, the general manager of NBC Sports Washington. But with the hiatus of live sporting events, the opportunity presented itself to put plans into motion.

“Given that we have some holes to fill or some hours to fill in our programming lineup, we thought, ‘Why not do it now?’” Phillips says. “We look at this as an experiment. We were trying to do something that’s fun. It’s entertaining, and we’ll find out how fans react to it.”

Curley’s been a gamer all his life, starting out on the Nintendo 64, Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo Entertainment System. But only in the past four or five years has he paid much attention to streaming games, coinciding with the rise of Fortnite, a battle-royale style multiplayer game.

In that timeframe, Curley’s seen the increase in popularity for streaming video games. And a major part of his job with D.C. United is coordinating coverage around the club’s esports players in competitions such as the eMLS Cup. That draws a set of fans on its own, fans of virtual soccer who may not watch the Black and Red play real-life soccer.

“The industry has sort of become this super-entity, I guess,” Curley says. “Like, for video gaming at least, it’s really, really, really impressive to see how it’s sort of built year after year.”

The tournament’s platform has helped Leyton Orient raise approximately $62,000 to support struggling lower-league soccer teams, the WHO’s COVID-19 fundraiser and MIND, a mental health charity.

And with live sports on hold for the time being, that audience could grow, looking for a light-hearted endeavor during a difficult time. Over 13,000 viewers watched as Leyton Orient goalkeeper Sam Sargeant lost 6-3 in the first game of the Ultimate Quaran-Team Cup to Lokomotiv Moscow.

“That is the reason we’ve had such a response, I think, because that outlet,” Walker says. “People have got something to look forward to, enjoy, take part in.”

So as life is put on hold in an attempt to curb the spread of coronavirus, esports are playing a role as a momentary distraction—something to enjoy despite a global pandemic.

“I really think it’s cool that they’re doing this on an international level to sort of bring people together in this dark time,” Curley says. “Everyone, you know, we have a common enemy in this coronavirus. And we’re sort of bringing everybody together to put eyeballs on this tournament.”