'We're all just trying to help each other': How video games are bringing MLB players and fans together

ByJoon Lee ESPN logo
Wednesday, April 8, 2020

ON THE LAST Monday night in March, Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell ate a Fruit Roll-Up, performed an occasional karaoke number -- including "Wonderwall" by Oasis and a mix of Drake tunes -- andplayed MLB The Show 20 on PlayStation Network.

"Bro,"Snell announced to the more than 500 fans tuned in on Twitch to watch him do all of this, "I have not been around another human being in forever."

Snell,the 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner, is among the most prominent baseball players on Twitch, the popular video game livestreaming service. Snell had already streamed every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night during the offseason to his more than 17,000 followers -- complete with cameos from his dog, June, informal tours of his game room and live chat Q&As-- but since the coronavirus outbreak began, those streams on his channel, classiclyfamous, have become almost nightly.

With the routine of baseball broken by a global pandemic, MLB stars have turned to their video game doppelgangers for the closest thing to real action -- and their fans have followed them. In a time with no games, baseball fans are getting uniquely intimate experiences with their favorite athletes, who have webcams pointed at them, uncut, for hours on end.

"It keeps us connected with fans because right now there's no sports," says Chicago White Sox lefty Carlos Rodon, whose growing following on Twitch is now up to nearly 1,000 and who has streamed regularly since the 2020 season was delayed indefinitely. "People have to stay inside. Hell, you're on lockdown, you're not talking to anybody, I think it's therapeutic for people. When you're in the situation we're in, you can be staring at a wall by yourself, and there's only so many TV shows you can watch or so many books you can read. Same thing with video games, but now you get to talk to a professional baseball player."

As many Americans started to self-quarantine by mid-March, online video game usage in the U.S. during peak hours rose 75%, according to a Verizon study published by The Hollywood Reporter. In just a single week, activity on Twitch increased by 10%, according to The Verge. Major League Baseball noticed. The league organized an official MLB The Show Players Tournament on Twitch late last month, a battle between Snell, Minnesota Twins reliever Trevor May, Cincinnati Reds reliever Amir Garrett and San Francisco Giants outfielder Hunter Pence. Garrett was named "King of the sticks!", winning it all while wearing a nearly full uniform -- hat, jersey, pants, jewelry and socks. Everything but his cleats.

"I did not have cleats on because I would have gotten in trouble [with my fiancee], but hopefully I was able to bring some smiles to people's faces," Garrett says. "We're in the same boat, and we're all just trying to help each other."

ON TREVOR MAY'S stream, beneath his webcam view, these nine words often appear in big, bold letters: "We have no idea when the season will start."

While looking for an apartment in Minnesota before the 2020 season, May says, finding a building with fiber internet was one of his main priorities, in order to minimize lag while playing and streaming online. May becameone of the first baseball players to stream on Twitch seriously when he had Tommy John surgery before the 2016 season. He now boasts a following of more than 160,000, is a member of the esports organization Luminosity and regularly plays Fortnite with esports stars such as Ninja.

Now back in the Twin Cities for self-quarantine, May has been on Twitch nearly every day playing games like The Show, Animal Crossing and Call of Duty.

"I've always been the showman, wanted to perform for people and interact with them," May says. "In high school, I would do all of our lip syncs in our class competitions. All of that kind of stuff was always interesting to me. And then I tried to be as interactive as possible on social media. If you asked my wife, that's what I do with things. When I get a hobby, I want to be as good at it as I can and make adjustments. That's the fun of it for me."

As for Snell, he joined Twitch in October of 2018, investing heavily into a studio setup featuring foam-treated walls, a high-quality webcam and microphone, three monitors, bright video production lights and a wide array of decorative RGB lights that are popular in the gaming community. Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Derek Holland joined after watching his teammate Pence livestream, and is now affiliated with the Alpha North esports group. Rodon, meanwhile, began streaming when his wife bought him all of the equipment to make his own Twitch channel after watching him play games every night. For the players, live-streaming video games is a lot of fun, but it also provides an opportunity to share a different side of their personality that doesn't come through in locker room media scrums and formal news conferences.

"I remember a lot of fans saying stuff on social media but they never knew me. They saw me in a baseball dugout at work, and I'm always serious and I don't talk," Snell says. "I'm always locked in, and I really just got to the point where I was like, I really want you to understand who I am. Like, that's not me. That's just me at work. They see me when I'm working, so when I'm working, of course I'm going to be serious and not having fun. Like, it's my job. So I started it up and I started talking to people."

By design, Twitch creates communities in chat rooms. For regular streamers like May and Snell, those communities began developing around their channels. Snell regularly gives shout-outs to viewers in the chat, particularly if he hasn't seen them in a while, and answers their questions about baseball (a recent one on the toughest hitter to face in real life got this answer: "Mookie Betts.")Snell isn't afraid to be a little controversial, too. In a not-so-thinly veiled reference to the Astros' cheating scandal, Snell called one of his trash cans "a bang-free trash bin" during one stream, and made headlines when he criticized a Rays trade for netting his team "a slapd--- prospect" -- a comment for which he later personally apologized to the prospect, Xavier Edwards.

Tune into one of May's streams and you'll often see him going back and forth with fans, discussing everything from the ethics of a Pete Rose reinstatement to why he doesn't follow the hype around top prospects.Tune in to Holland's stream and you might find the lefty playing Grand Theft Auto, The Show or Super Mario 64 while doing his best impersonations of Kermit the Frog, Cleveland from "The Cleveland Show" and legendary broadcaster Harry Caray. What used to be confined to clubhouse antics is now being broadcast live on the internet.

For Twitch streamers like Brian Sawyer, who goes by JugsySiegel on the platform, discovering this community was a jackpot for fans like him. "I didn't realize like, wait, there's people here playing baseball, talking baseball," Sawyer says. "If you're a baseball nerd like me, you don't really have many people to talk about this stuff with because it's nerdy stats and numbers. I found this community of people where we were all like-minded and we all love baseball. We hang out and talk about baseball all day."

Sawyer and other notable streamers in the Twitch community who play The Show began developing relationships with big leaguers like Snell, May and Holland. What started out as friendly banter in the chat room slowly turned into private messages and, eventually, joint live streams.

"It's really bridged this gap of the players being untouchable. The player is approachable. It's unbelievable," Sawyer says. "These guys are coming in and they're interacting with us. You can almost touch them as a fan, and you see them in a different light. You see them on TV and they're stoic and they're quiet and they're almost like superheroes. Then you see themstreaming, and they're just normal people."

When Tyler Jedrzejak, who goes by DaddyDimmuTV on Twitch, started playing Holland online, he once tried to throw a complete game against the Pittsburgh lefty using Holland's own video game counterpart. It worked.

"I play the game a little bit too much since it's my job, but you're not trying to destroy them," says Jedrzejak, who makes enough money off subscriptions and ads that he became a full-time Twitcher in December. "It was fun playing Derek Holland because when I was pitching, right before I throw the pitch, he would call exactly what I was throwing. He knew exactly what I was doing because, I mean, he's a pitcher."

Since the spread of COVID-19, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger and infielder Gavin Lux, Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen and White Sox starter Lucas Giolito have been among the players without Twitch accounts to join the online competition -- a natural extension of the sport's larger video game culture, which has existed for some time now, according to multiple players. Whereas in generations past, players routinely went out for a classy dinner and a drink, younger players who grew up with gaming are turning to their controllers to bond with their teammates during their many nights spent on the road.

"When I was younger, if you really wanted to hang out with your teammates outside of the field, a lot of guys would end up going out or to the hotel bar and have a couple of drinks. You always felt like you needed to get together somewhere," McCutchen says. "No one hung out in their room together because there was nothing to do besides watch a movie or something. With video games, we got guys coming over, we're putting rooms together and have all the doors open. It's kind of like a big icebreaker. I was on teams where we would get our Nintendo Switches and we'd all play together in a room."

When Rodon came up with the White Sox, the team would organize FIFA tournaments or play 2-on-2 co-op games, often huddling in then-Chicago ace Chris Sale's hotel room.

"Some guys wouldn't even be playing," Rodon says. "Some guys would just be hanging out, watching and just talking. Some of the guys didn't even play video games, [they were] just there to hang with the guys. It's a different way of team bonding because it's competing still, right? It's competing for fun, but there's not really any stakes."

Video games have become one of the main methods of communication for teammates during the offseason. Setting up a mic and playing a round of, say, Rocket League is now more commonplace than simply picking up the phone. Conversations online can range from industry gossip to workout regimens to pitch grips.

"Me personally, I wouldn't FaceTime a good buddy of mine for two and a half hours. I'd probably just text him or if not, then a quick FaceTime for 10 to 15 minutes," Giolito says. "If you're gaming with a good friend, you'll sit there and talk for two and a half hours. You're not always talking about the game."

McCutchen, an 11-year veteran who's played with four organizations, says video games have kept him in touch with former teammates like Ryan Church, with whom he played for less than a full season with the Pirates in 2010.

"A lot of times, what you find out is when you're not teammates with guys or maybe you're not as close with guys as much as we would like to be, once the season's over, you kind of lose contact," McCutchen says. "You might have a few guys you keep in contact with, but the team itself, you lose contact. You go from one team to another, you find yourself not even talking to any of those guys ever again, so I think with video games and that community, that kind of holds guys together."

Now, that communication takes on even more significance as players wait for any sign of baseball's return.

Says Snell: "When something like this happens, all the players bond because they all feel the same pain and they're all going through the same emotions of not being able to do what they love. It brings out the best, and it makes players get closer. They realize they're both in the same situation. That's the hardest thing, when you lose something you love and there's nothing you can do about it. They're going to get bored, they're going to reach out, they're going to talk to the guys because they miss competing."

For Garrett, self-expression is equally important. "It's just a different time, a different era," the 27-year-old pitcher says. "Baseball is not going to be here forever. I just try to market myself as much as I can and brand myself. Social media is a great way for people to get to know the real you, and I would tell other athletes to not be shy or scared to use social media. Nobody wants to be that guy, but it's OK to be you. You don't have to be a robot."

Twitch is a much-needed distraction for fans like Sawyer, and, until recently, a second income for him. Sawyer lost his job in the catering industry when the Las Vegas Strip shut down due to the coronavirus. Streaming online has given him some backup financial support during a difficult period in his life when he would normally be turning to baseball as an outlet.

"Twitch and this platform has definitely saved baseball for me. I don't think I would even be thinking about it," Sawyer says. "If it's not on, how many old reruns of a Ken Burns baseball documentary can you watch?"

WITH THE SEASON on hold, and his interest in Twitch rising, Garrett began to search for the right equipment, but he kept running into roadblocks.

"I was trying to get one of the best cameras, but they're all sold out because everyone is a gamer now. I had to adapt really quick and get a PS4 camera; it wasn't bad, but my Twitch, I'm going to start pursuing it a little bit more during this time and see where it goes from here."

Garrett won't be the last to give it a go. Boston Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes, for one, opened his own account in recent weeks, and his teammates Eduardo Rodriguez and Xander Bogaerts -- along with Bogaerts' twin brother,Jair --- have been streaming Fortnite almost daily. But making the most of Twitch, especially these days, is about a lot more than just fancy hardware. The biggest challenge facing newcomers is the gradual building of a community, according to Snell, something that takes time and effort. On the night he won his Cy Young Award, Snell broadcast live, celebrating with his fans and giving away a signed jersey.

"It's not like, oh, you buy a camera and you're good," Snell says. "You're going to spend a lot of money to stream, and you're not going to make a lot and you're going to have to be there for people who are not yourself. You're going to be there for them. Then you've got to find the beauty in that, and that should make you happy."

May has started multiple careers in Road to the Show, an MLB The Show feature that allows gamers to simulate a career in professional baseball. May also created a second version of himself -- as a hitter. These days, May's wife often finds him yelling phrases like "Sit in the truck" and "Get your doors blown off" when he's striking out virtual batters. With more than 3,000 concurrent viewers and a million total views at times during the pandemic, years of streaming has made a difference for May.

"I realized really quickly that being a professional athlete didn't have as much play in that world, but it had a little bit. I just was really active," May says. "Being really active in the community, you don't just pop in and say, 'Hey, you want to play?' That's not how it works. You've got to make friendships and meet people that also enjoy playing video games. That doesn't change for anybody, no matter what walk of life. If it feels like you're a fake member of the community, it's just not that fun to watch."

It can require a thick skin, too. Holland often gets roasted by people in the chatroom. Sometimes fans bring up the real-life walk-off grand slam he served up to Bryce Harper last August as a member of the Chicago Cubs.

"I'll give up a homer in The Show and people will joke around like, 'Ooh, that one's almost like the Harper one,'" Holland says. "I'm like, 'Ah, it's kind of close, but not quite.'"

Like many of his peers, Holland only started playing The Show after the suspension of the baseball season, but he's been enjoying a small taste of baseball at a time when fields across the country are empty. For now, he knows this is the closest to the real thing he and his fans are going to get.

"You're not going to get too many complaints out of me," Holland says. "Sometimes the umpires squeeze me a little bit, but that's kind of like real life."

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