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East County Wednesday, Apr. 15, 2020 2 months ago

East County high school athletes turn to esports while stuck at home.

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Do video games come close to the thrill of real sports?
by: Ryan Kohn Sports Reporter

After dusting off his gaming system at the beginning of his quarantine, Lakewood Ranch High senior Zack Weston made a horrifying discovery. 

The power cord was missing. 

Weston, an infielder on the school's baseball team, played video games so rarely during his preparation for the spring sports season that he never noticed it was gone. Things have changed now. Weston said he has more down time than ever now that his sport, like all sports, has been sidelined for the time being. He needed a distraction and a way to connect with his teammates, he said. Weston ordered a new cord and began challenging his teammates in all the hot games of the moment. 

Weston said "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare," a battle royal shooter in the vein of the ever-popular "Fortnite," has been a popular pick among the Mustangs. 

Minnesota VIkings running back Dalvin Cook splits the Detroit Lions defense in "Madden 20." Photo courtesy EA Sports.

"I'm terrible at that type of game, though," Weston said. "I prefer 'NBA 2K' or 'Madden.'"

Those sports games are popular, too, Weston said, and are prime opportunities for trash talk. Weston said he's one of the biggest talkers when he plays, alongside seniors Taylor Steier and Richie Morales.

"We don't get to do it that often (in real life)," Weston said. "If we're playing a real game and a guy swings and misses on a ball in the dirt, maybe one person will say something lighthearted, but that's it. If a guy gets juked out of his cleats in 'Madden' or gets completely destroyed in 'Call of Duty,' he will be hearing about it for a while. That's a big part of the fun of it."

The gaming phenomenon has also overtaken the Braden River High football team, which would normally be preparing for spring football workouts right now. Instead, the Pirates have to turn to games like "2K" to get their competitive juices flowing. Junior quarterback Shawqi Itraish said he and junior wide receivers Josh Thomas and Connor Losada are the most competitive people on the team. While there not have been any official team tournaments, the Pirates are taking each other on constantly. 

A digital LeBron James soars for a dunk in "NBA 2K20." Photo courtesy 2K Entertainment.

"A lot of our teammates want to challenge us," Itraish said. "We beat them pretty bad every time."

Itraish said his go-to team is the Houston Rockets for the combination of James Harden and Russell Westbrook. There's trash talk within the Pirates, he said, but no one takes it that seriously — unlike winning. Until they can get back outside, Itraish said, this is the closest they will get to proving themselves on the field. 

High schoolers are not alone in the trend. The NBA is in the midst of a 16-person "2K" tournament, which includes famous participants like Brooklyn Nets wing Kevin Durant and Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young and is airing on ESPN. The MLB announced a similar "players' league" for "MLB: The Show," which will have one representative from each of its 30 clubs and will stream online. 

Weston said he won't be streaming his own games but he is interested in watching the pros do their thing.

"You get to see their personalities when they do stuff like that," Weston said. "You get to see that the guys are funny and relatable and just like us. I will definitely be watching it."

Video games won't ever replace real sports in Weston's heart, but they can be a stopgap — as long as his power cord does not go missing again. 

I’m the sports reporter for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. I was born and raised in Olney, MD. My biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. My strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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