ESPN reports that the NFL Pro Bowl will not only forego their annual Orlando festivities due to COVID-19, but that the event itself will be held virtually and air on television in place of the in-person game.
The Pro Bowl will be played on Madden 21, which is actually among the most critically panned installments ever, with two squads of real-life participants controlling the virtual teams. The report lists Deshaun Watson, Derrick Henry, Snoop Dogg, and Keyshawn Johnson as AFC representatives, while the NFC will be led by Kyler Murray, Jamal Adams, NASCAR’s Bubba Wallace, and Marshawn Lynch. The participants will control their teams, comprised of the official AFC and NFC Pro Bowl rosters, for one five-minute quarter each.
Other famous video game streamers like Ninja, AMP, AustinShow, and FaZe Swagg will have watch parties on their respective streaming channels during the event, per ESPN.
ESPN also reports that the Pro Bowl itself will be hosted by Charissa Thompson and Michael Strahan starting at 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, with the esports event streamed on the EA Madden NFL Twitch channel, along with the NFL’s other digital platforms on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. The NFL Network will air the event at 8 p.m. on Sunday evening.
On the significance of the NFL pivoting to esports for their Pro Bowl, NBA 2K League Correspondent and HQ Trivia Host Jeff Eisenband says the NFL’s creativity will bode well, even without being able to field the league’s best in Honolulu.
“I think it’s important because the NFL has found a way to still engage with fans in a meaningful way during the off-week before the Super Bowl,” Eisenband told Deadspin. “Will it be the same thing we’re used to? No, but it will be a celebration featuring superstar players and big-name celebrities and personalities. It’s a safe way to put out some good content. Plus, it helps the NFL and EA Sports in that this will bring publicity to a game the league licenses.”
He adds that it is not only an efficient alternative, but perhaps it’s the best one available.
“Unlike some other pandemic initiatives, gaming is battle-tested both in technology and in fandom,” he said. “The streaming networks are set up, and players have been gaming against each other — many with sponsors — for the last year. The NFL and EA Sports have been building up for this with events like Derwin James vs. The World this fall. The NFL esports community will enjoy this, as will other casual gamers and NFL fans. Is it for everyone? No. But it’s still a successful pivot in a pandemic.”
Along with it being efficient, the Madden-style Pro Bowl also offers a unique opportunity to present the league in a format friendlier to younger demographics. It’s a small risk the league is taking to capitalize on broadening their audience, even ahead of the Super Bowl, which may add new elements to both the Pro Bowl, and the league’s content, moving forward.