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How USL turned to eSports during coronavirus shutdown

League sought to keep engagement while many were stuck at home.

ESports: eMLS Cup Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Note: This is the second feature in this series discussing USL videos and their work with WSC Sports. Be sure to check out the first part here.

When the USL Championship suspended the 2020 season just over a week into the campaign back in March, the league faced an uncertain situation.

Obviously the first priority was to deal with and combat coronavirus, and effectively shutting down all public events and non-essential work was paramount. But then what?

With many fans and all players suddenly in possession of maximum free time while locked down at home, the league made its first foray into eSports.

“Our clubs demanded early on when we suspended the season, they reached out to us asking for some sort of competition, something that they can get their fans to sink their teeth into and something that their fans could have to cheer for at a really stressful and unknown time,” said Lizzie Seedhouse, USL senior vice president of digital, emerging technology and strategy in an exclusive interview with Indomitable City Soccer.

The league held two eSports competitions during the shutdown, a USL Rocket League and a FIFA20 eCup tournament, the latter which included Sacramento Republic FC.

“Introducing eSports to the USL was a new challenge,” said Seedhouse. “We didn’t really know how our fans would respond, if they were gamers, or if they were into it or not. So we wanted to keep it as close to soccer as possible, which also drove why we picked the [Rocket League] game as well because it was basically soccer for cars, which was really easy for people to understand as they watched.”

To maximize the experience, USL made use of their partnership with WSC Sports, a company which produces AI video software to clip and distribute videos for sports leagues and teams.

Shaka Arnon, general manager of WSC Sports North America, said the global shutdown and pause on sports gave the company a chance to clean up the software and serve clients in new and different ways.

“This pause has been really interesting for us and actually with the difficulty, and the challenges it was also a big opportunity, although obvious challenge of no live sports,” Arnon said during an interview with Indomitable City Soccer. “But it gave us an opportunity first to take a deep look at stuff that as every company that’s fast paced, a lot of things are getting postponed and pushed to the backlog. It gave us a lot of opportunity to do infrastructure work so it’s been great. We’ve done a lot of things, improvements to our inefficiencies to our product and improved the infrastructure.”

The USL weren’t the only entity to use WSC Sports’ program to run eSports, said Arnon.

“[What] we’ve done with USL, we took in and worked on the esports that they’ve been doing, to replace the live sports. So NBA, USL and others were giving us eSports. And that was really cool, really neat what USL has done,” he said.

While real life soccer games can have highlights ready within a few minutes of the final whistle using WSC Sports’ tools, Seedhouse said in some ways the USL mimicked the process for their eSports — such as releasing goal highlight clips on social media within minutes of them happening on a stream — while needing to adjust in reality.

“We did record the games a little bit earlier than kickoff time just because of internet issues and dealing with being on ESPN and the technical issues we might face,” she said. “So we did have that advantage of being a little bit ahead of the game. We knew what the final score was so that allowed us to pre-produce a little bit but then WSC came in and it allowed us to package and sponsor all of our footage. But then again with our teams having access to WSC they were able to get in there and share the clips that they wanted because, as you saw in eCup some games have like 20-plus goals. We can’t share all of them. So, it allowed us the flexibility to kind of pick the cream of the crop and then teams can go in and share the same stuff or something that might be unique to their storytelling.”

Since the eSports tournaments did not have an Opta data feed, which the league uses for live games, Seedhouse said there was more human work involved in producing highlights compared to the primarily automated system for real life games.

The league ended the USL eCup a bit earlier than originally planned, for two reasons. Following the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, the league paused the video games and began amplifying messages from players around the league, particularly black players.

“Given the social climate, the conversation on social media, it just seemed like the right thing to do, to dedicate resources towards education on racism and giving our athletes the platform for their voice, and not just play video games. We want to be really sensitive to what a lot of people in this country are going through,” Seedhouse noted.

After the week of pause, the league ended the eCup because the USL Championship is tentatively planning to return to live games on July 11.

“We announced that we’ve concluded the eCup early just because we’re now planning to go back to the season,” she said. “Both League One and the Championship, our efforts for our clubs in the league has to be towards getting back and getting people excited.

“...So it really did serve a good purpose and we did all of our tournaments with a charity element as well, where teams would play locally for philanthropic effort, which has been great. But now soccer is our bread and butter and we’re really excited to get back to it,” Seedhouse added.

While the unusual time left the league to try something different, on a new timeline, Seedhouse said the initial reaction to the first foray into eSports was overall successful.

“It was good. I think our fans were really excited there was something. The adoption wasn’t as high as traditional soccer because our fans are soccer fans, not eSports fans. But it was still really well received and I think our teams really got behind it and you would see players doing postgame press conferences in isolation. The players really got behind it, too, which I think is what made it extra special that we had these personalities and characters going above and beyond on social media, [to] bring it all together for us.”

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