Does getting virtual victories make up for a lack of real sports?
During his quarantine, Riverview High football's junior middle linebacker Daevon Lebron is still reading opposing offense's pre-snap movements.
He is still committed to stopping the run first, then the pass. He still will call an audible if he sees something he does not like. Lebron, who had 64 total tackles in 2019, is still a defensive force, but he's doing these things not for Riverview, but for the New Orleans Saints, his preferred team to use in "Madden 20."
Lebron, like a lot of high school athletes, has turned to esports to fill the void of real sports while social distancing. Lebron was a gamer before it started, though, playing sports games like "Madden" in addition to shooters like "Fortnite" and "Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege," and he takes his virtual football as seriously as he does the real thing.
"All the stuff our coaches teach us to do, I try to translate that to the game," Lebron said. "That's the biggest key. You have to understand football to be good at the game, that and having good user skills (knowing the game's control scheme, quick fingers, etc.)."
Lebron said he considers himself and fellow junior linebacker Brandon Davenport to be the best "Madden" players on the team, giving himself a rating of 7.5-8 out of 10 in comparison to esports professionals. When he and Davenport play, things get intense. There's a lot of trash talk, he said, even extending to real football practice, where the two will jaw at each other and plan games to play later that evening. Lebron is missing those practice interactions now. Before the pandemic, spring football practice was scheduled to begin April 27. At the least, spring practice will not start on time, and it is looking more likely by the day that it gets altogether canceled. LeBron knows this, even though he has been staying in shape by doing body weight workouts and cardio exercises.
While "Madden" cannot fully replace the feeling of the real thing, winning still gives Lebron an adrenaline rush and satisfies his competitive spirit.
"If the game is close — if you win on the final play of the game or something — that is a great feeling," Lebron said. "That is exciting and something to celebrate. But the real thing is different. You're with your teammates and the crowd. You're only focused on football.You don't feel that flip of the switch with 'Madden.'"
At Sarasota High, baseball junior pitcher Conner Whittaker is waiting to see if the FHSAA cancels its spring season, ending the Sailors' campaign early. He, too, has begun playing more video games, sticking with "Madden" as well as "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare" and the "Grand Theft Auto" series. He prefers shooters because you can play with more people at once online, he said, and having friends to chirp when something inevitably goes wrong is a big aspect of the fun.
"We get so mad at each other," Whittaker said of his Sailors teammates. "When we're all on the same squad, it's crazy. And if the other team starts chirping at us, we are going to chirp back. Reese (Clancy, senior pitcher), he's the most vocal when it comes to that."
It is not just high school athletes jumping on the craze. Leagues like the NBA and MLB have set up tournaments where their athletes play each other in "NBA 2K20" and "MLB: The Show 20," respectively. ESPN aired the NBA's tournament, while the MLB's games are streaming for free on Twitch and other websites. Cameras capture both the in-game action and the player's faces, with commentary audio to boot. Whittaker and Lebron both said they are interested in watching such events while real sports are on the sidelines.
"You get to see another side of people when they play video games," Whittaker said. "You see their real personalities and how they interact with other players. It's a lot like we do."