As the sports world continues to be at a standstill due to the unprecedented pandemic, many are turning to watching video games to get their sports fix.
The NBA has put on NBA 2K tournaments with players, NASCAR has seen its drivers take part in weekly iRacing events, and the NHL is seeing its teams air games simmed via NHL 20. But there’s one group of fans that have had an outlet for the sport all along: football fans.
With the NFL in its offseason, many looked to the XFL for that hard-hitting action. Unfortunately, the league’s inaugural season was shelved due to the Coronavirus leaving many wondering where to turn. That’s where the Simulation Football League (SFL) has come in and stepped up in a big way.
Football for Everyone
A simple esports football league to the outsider, the SFL is much more than meets the eye. Featuring 20 individually owned organizations, over 40 coaches and scouts, and 440 players in the league, the SFL is a fully operational virtual football league.
“There’s a different kind of entertainment that you can partake,” SFL Commissioner Cameron Irvine said. “There is interactive sports out there that didn’t exist before us, and what I mean is that a viewer on TV is watching themselves, their friends, family members.”
The games are played in AI vs. AI contests using a modified version of All-Pro Football 2K8, making the SFL the first and only official esports league of its kind. Not only does it use a game from over a decade ago, but there’s no one actually playing the games. It’s all done using gameplans created by the coaching staff and submitted to the league for play.
Rather than using a league full of randomly generated players, the SFL builds its rosters in a more personal fashion. Every member of an SFL roster is based on a real person. Whether you have athletic experience or not, the league prides itself on welcoming any and everyone who wants to be a part of the league. It’s the truest form of Fantasy Football.
“This is for the people by the people,” Irvine said. “It really is a celebration of individuals and their stories and their moments. As fans we’re not just viewers anymore, we’re actually a part of the game we’re taking in.”
Circling back to the game being used for the simulations, Irvine says that using All-Pro Football 2K8 provides the league with stability and reliability that you can’t get with modern games like Madden.
“The biggest reason why we don’t use Madden is because of the constant updates to the game, and not being able to do anything about that,” he said. “In our business, we need to be able to rely on consistent artificial intelligence that can be studied and game-planned for and against. It’s very important, so if things are constantly changing, it would devalue the work and efforts being made by our coaching staffs across the league.”
Irvine added that the league has talked with game companies about possible partnerships or building out a product for the SFL. For now, however, the league is happy with where things are with All-Pro Football 2K8 as the engine for the league.
Now in its 14th season — they play two seasons per year — the SFL has seen its notoriety grow nationally, with local outlets starting to pick up coverage of teams in their city.
The league even secured its first traditional television deal when it signed on with Eleven Sports to broadcast its games on the network that’s available on major providers like DirecTV and Verizon FiOS.
“I made a pretty large investment in technology from our headquarters so that we were broadcasting in 1080p, we had higher quality audio, and things like that,” Irvine said. “I felt like, okay, we need to position ourselves to make the jump.
“Just a couple weeks after that, I got a call saying ‘I’m with Eleven Sports and we’d like to partner with you to air your content’.”
With that traditional TV package going along with the league’s online presence on YouTube and Twitch, the SFL and its 20 teams see every game broadcasted in some way or form. This gives fans across the United States and beyond looking to find a team to follow ample opportunity to get used to the product.
Irvine says that establishing the SFL on a national scale first and growing the league’s mainstream fans was always the business model. Going the other way, he said, would of lead to far less coverage than they’re seeing now.
“If I wanted to localize a team in Houston but they’ve never heard of our product ever, I stand no chance,” he said.
Giving People an Escape
With most people in self-isolation right now as the country — and the rest of the world — tries to combat the virus, the SFL has seen an uptick in interest from multiple fronts.
Whether it’s been the aforementioned local media coverage or the random person clicking through TV channels for something to watch, SFL games have become an escape for people looking for a sense of normalcy in life.
“With everybody being home, this league has taken on a whole new meaning for people because it’s something to look forward to, you know,” Irvine said. “It really is just about showing people who we are. It’s just an introduction to the product, [and] we’re just blessed and humbled to be able to still operate.”
Despite the increased attention, there’s the obvious question about what happens when “life gets back to normal”. To that, Irvine says that he’s optimistic the people who’ve taken the time to find and watch the SFL have found something they can enjoy and be a part of for years to come.
“I’m more than happy to be peoples’ entertainer in a time like this,” he said. “Hopefully after all of this ends once people have really gotten entrenched in it, they’ll see the value.”