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From courts to consoles: With live sports canceled, pro athletes join the streaming surge

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 the 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 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 analytics agency Esports Charts, the number of streamers on Twitch who reached at least five concurrent viewers has jumped about 70 percent, from around 470,000 as of the last week of February to more than 800,000 as of the last week of March.

Beyond the players, the Phoenix Suns are simulating their season on NBA2K20; the Washington Wizards are doing the same and broadcasting the action on TV. A recent virtual NASCAR race featuring gamers and former drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. was broadcast on Fox Sports 1 and 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.

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 such as Leonard and Hezonja. Several years ago, Leonard was at a summit put on by the NBA Players Association that was focused on life after basketball. He thought he would 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 now spends much of his offseason streaming 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. In the morning, they meditate, work out and 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 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 while living alone in Portland. Asked during a phone interview whether he was worried about loneliness setting in, he 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 teammates to boost their intensity for the season’s home stretch. Then Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the virus March 11 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 Wojnarowski. “That’s how we get a lot of news,” he said. “Through Woj bombs.”

Several NBA teams have been tested for the coronavirus despite shortages around the country, and a number of players tested positive. Hezonja’s first reaction to Gobert’s positive test was a desire to be tested himself, but in a meeting with public health officials in Oregon he learned about the 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, and 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.

“I am happy for Warzone,” Hezonja said. “I would say I’m addicted.”

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