Arash Markazi: WWE and esports enjoy moment in spotlight, but will it last?

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Entering a fourth week without live sports broadcasts you might have noticed a trend when tuning into ESPN or Fox Sports out of habit this weekend.

Whether it’s FS1 broadcasting NASCAR iRacing, ESPN televising NBA2K games or both networks showing WWE programming, the only form of live — or live to tape — entertainment resembling sports during this global pandemic are esports and professional wrestling.

Of course, pro wrestling is scripted drama with fictional characters and predetermined results, but with sports around the world shut down and everyone stuck at home practicing social distancing, there’s something almost cathartic about watching WWE champion Brock Lesnar body slamming Drew McIntyre in the middle of the ring.

This weekend the WWE is hosting WrestleMania, the Super Bowl of pro wrestling, which was originally slated to take place at Raymond James Stadium, the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It would have been the 14th consecutive WrestleMania held at a football stadium with a capacity of at least 70,000. Next year’s event is slated to take place at SoFi Stadium, the home of the Rams and Chargers, in Inglewood.

With the current COVID-19 pandemic, though, WrestleMania will take place on closed sets in and around the WWE’s training facility in Orlando, Fla., this weekend. The two-night event will be hosted by former New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

The spotlight currently turning to esports and wrestling has been interesting to watch for WWE stars Cesaro and Xavier Woods. Both wrestlers have spent most of their time away from the ring playing video games for years and have their own Twitch channels they use to stream themselves playing games to a global audience.

“What we do in wrestling is we travel the world and connect with people and I think video games and esports does the same thing,” Cesaro said. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, we can play games together and we can watch wrestling together.”

Woods feels like this could be a moment for the rest of the world to discover the same passion for video games and wrestling that he and many of his fellow “nerds” have enjoyed for years.

“So many people are wondering what they’re going to do at home, but my basement is pretty much an arcade so I haven’t gone stir crazy at all,” Woods said. “If you liked video games and wrestling as a kid, when you became a teenager and got to high school, everyone wanted to party. If you’re watching wrestling or playing video games you probably got made fun of. People who are die-hard fans of both now are people that got through that and continued doing what they love. We’re all the same kind of nerd. Now something that we’ve enjoyed our whole lives is the only live entertainment option.”

Cesaro hasn’t just spent time at home playing video games. He along with Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward recently invested in Tribe Gaming, a mobile-gaming company founded by gaming influencer Patrick “Chief Pat” Carney in 2017.

“Gaming is in a really interesting spot right now,” Carney said. “Not just from a television standpoint but we’ve been seeing with people working from home, playing ‘Fortnite’ together is the new happy hour. I think that’s fascinating that gaming has become the new ‘let’s grab a coffee or drink’ during this time.”

Not only are esports and pro wrestling getting prime placement on sports networks during this social-distancing period, but sports wagering sites, which are looking for any events that fans can wager on, are placing odds and taking bets on both with fairly low limits on each, especially with the WWE’s predetermined results.

“We have been working day and night to get up as much as we can for people to have some fun with during these isolation times,” said BetOnline sports book manager Adam Burns. “NBA2K has seen an incredible amount of bets. Limits are not huge. It’s $250 for NBA2K and $100 for WWE. But people are having fun with it.”

Woods is hopeful that new fans of esports and pro wrestling during this time will continue to follow both when normalcy returns and traditional sports come back.

“I hope after everything settles down people remember what video games and wrestling did,” Woods said. “When everything else was gone, video games and wrestling were still there for you and entertaining you.”


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