Major League Soccer is the latest sports organization to move its games to a virtual format, launching a month-long tournament starring both professional athletes and EA Sports’ FIFA 20 Global Series esports players.
The tournament, called the eMLS Tournament Special, will pit 16 MLS teams against each other, pairing an actual member of the team with an esports player for two-on-two matches, according to Polygon. The tournament will operate in a single-elimination format, meaning that when players lose, they’re immediately out. MLS will air five matches over the course of a month, with games airing on FS1 and Fox Deportes, the league’s broadcast partners. Fox Sports commentators Stu Holden, Rachel Bonnetta, and Rodolfo Landeros will lend their voices to the tournament.
MLS isn’t the first league to use virtual tournaments to emulate a feeling of normalcy for fans at home. The NBA, MLS, Formula One, and NASCAR have also hosted virtual tournaments and races. Some have been quite successful; for example, iRacing events surpassed 1 million viewers when those races aired on March 29th and April 5th on Fox Sports. Other games have been less successful, however: NBA’s 2K tournament saw a high of 387,000 viewers when the tournament kicked off at 7:30PM ET on April 3rd on ESPN, and it hovered around 350,000 viewers.
These are far from the normal viewership numbers that ESPN puts up, but both the network and leagues are looking to fill programming space. For leagues like the NBA, that includes finding new ways of getting healthy players to compete in televised events. On Sunday, the network aired a special HORSE competition between a number of NBA, WNBA, and alumni players, who all took turns competing in a skills shot competition from their individual homes. The Disney-owned network even decided to air a marathon of esports coverage — 12 hours total — on April 5th, turning to NBA 2K, Madden NFL 20, and Rocket League tournaments.
The longer that leagues have to prolong their seasons, the more reliant networks like ESPN and Fox Sports become on supplementary programming. Esports, or virtual tournaments that more closely resemble simulations of a regular game, are the easiest way to fill that programming space while players are stuck at home.
The first eMLS Tournament Special match will air on Sunday, April 19th, at 7PM ET, and see the Chicago Fire take on the FC Cincinnati.