It’s hard to be a sports fan, let alone a soccer fan, right now with COVID-19 sweeping across the world.
All major competitions have been suspended, seasons are on hold, and the threat of everything being outright canceled is growing larger by the day.

That is not stopping local professional teams, like the New York Red Bulls, all the way down to amateur sides from making the best of a bad situation. Whether it be within their own leagues or as a nationwide competition, teams are trading soccer balls for video game controllers as competitive Esports take the field.

For the uninitiated, Esports (also stylized as ‘eSports’) is competitive play within video games between two players.

It’s huge in countries such as South Korea and Japan, with a growing presence in the United States thanks to the explosion of certain game genres and exposure growing as a whole.

In sports games like FIFA and Madden companies like Electronic Arts (EA) have begun to capitalize on the phenomenon with more lucrative prizes and more focus going into head-to-head tournaments.

MLS already has a competitive Esports branch within its organization, eMLS. Each year, professional FIFA players represent each team in the league and play one another in a similar setup to the standard MLS season, including a postseason and championship final at the end. This year, just before the regular MLS season went on hiatus, the eMLS Cup, which was scheduled to take place at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, TX, was postponed when the event around it was canceled due to COVID-19. In the meantime, teams have been hosting match replays of classic matches (coinciding with the 25th anniversary of MLS) and also playing FIFA matches between teams, either using their eMLS stars or letting the computer play as both teams as a simulation, as a spectacle substitute for the actual games.

This is being carried out on Twitch and Red Bulls eMLS star Mike LaBelle has been repping the team’s colors well. While it doesn’t fully scratch the itch it is nice to see Daniel Royer and Kaku back on the field even if it’s only virtually. Plus fans can still yell about substitutions but this time the chat is way more visible to the person in control!

One of the biggest efforts to jump into this space has come from the United Soccer League. Teams from both the USL Championship (Div. 2) and USL League One (Div. 3) have started an eCup between teams within Rocket League, an online hybrid between soccer and remote control cars. In total 32 teams are taking part, divided in World Cup-style groups of four, and matches are being broadcast live on the ESPN3 online service. It’s honestly kind of ridiculous that Major League Soccer, and eMLS as a whole, is resorting to just using Twitch and Twitter streaming for its ongoing efforts to keep fans engaged.

To put that in perspective: Red Bulls II has a better streaming outlet than the first team right now while the latter is actually playing FIFA, a much more popular game worldwide. It’s a shame that the reserve team hasn’t been playing its best on this stage with two straight losses in group play. They will finish up against League One’s Richmond Kickers on Wednesday, April 8 at 5 PM.

While the USL eCup is only open to the professional sides of the United Soccer League system, another tournament is making ground with over 100 amateur teams taking part. The Lower League eCup, presented by Protagonist Soccer, has one of the most robust rosters of participants of any soccer competition. Teams from national leagues, like the National Premier Soccer League or USL League Two, and countless local leagues like the local Garden State Soccer League and Cosmopolitan Soccer League are all taking part. There are even select pro teams taking part from the National Independent Soccer Association (Div. 3) and USL League One respectively.

Photo: Protagonist Soccer

The game of choice for this tournament is FIFA, and since none of the contestants are in the game as a playable option each club chooses another side to represent it. In the spirit of the “lower league” aspect of the cup, the entrants must choose from teams that play in the 3rd and 4th tier of either English and German football in FIFA 20.

With multiple groups separated by console, the best finishing teams from each one will be entered into a single-elimination tournament. This will start with a Round of 48, starting Monday, May 4th to Thursday, May 7th, and finally finish with a Final on Saturday, May 30th.

With the possibility of the U.S. Open Cup not being played this year after it was “temporarily suspended” last month this might be the closest we get to cross league play in 2020.

The entire tournament is going to help lower league sides which otherwise would have to fold due to the lack of revenue coming in due to game cancellations. The Cup’s FAQ section explains it by saying “the  majority of lower league clubs operate as small businesses that survive year to year, and we’re here to help.”

A lot of local teams are taking part in the LL eCup too. Two New Jersey NPSL sides, FC Motown and Atlantic City FC (the former of which has a ton of RBNY connections including head coach Šaćir Hot and former Bull star Dilly Duka), have both started out with wins in their respective groups. From the Cosmopolitan Soccer League both New York City International F.C. and Hoboken FC 1912 are competing against each-other in GROUP C of the PlayStation 4 part of the tournament.

The full schedule can be found online, with upcoming dates for all the local teams on their respective consoles listed.

It’s important for fans to remember just how lucky they are that teams are willing to try and entertain them during this time. Sure, it’s easy to dismiss it as a way to market to their already committed audience who have nothing else to do right now. But when a second and third division league are committed to using ESPN to broadcast Rocket League and lower league teams play to help one another, it goes a long way to show how much cool and good things can come out of it. Plus there’s the added benefit of possibly reaching new audiences with these formats.

While we all want this pandemic to be over and for normality to return, it is nice to take a step back and appreciate what we do have.

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