No NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL to bet on? These esports offer an alternative

2020 LCS Spring Finals will happen online due to the coronavirus (1:44)

As many esports events transfer to an online format, the LCS is following suit, making the Spring Split Finals completely online. (1:44)

With major sports on hiatus, many bettors are turning to what competitions are still taking place. Among them is esports. Though competitive gaming has boomed with live events in the past several years, its roots are online, with tournaments being organized remotely. In our current reality of social distancing and self-quarantine, many esports leagues and tournaments have rediscovered these roots.

Here is a primer on a few games that may eventually have widespread betting odds.

NHL 20

What is NHL 20?

NHL 20 is a hockey simulation video game put out annually by EA Sports. This isn't NBA Jam or NFL Blitz; this is a true-to-life (as much as possible) version of what you see on the ice.

That means teams are weighted according to how good they are in the NHL: The Bruins, Capitals, Lightning and Penguins, for example, are all strong teams in the game.

What's happening with NHL teams now that there is no season?

There are different content paths being taken by different teams in the NHL right now on how they are presenting regular-season games in NHL 20. Some are doing CPU vs. CPU simulations, while others are having the mascots join in. For this article I'm going to focus on what the Capitals are doing, involving their professional esports competitor.

Wait, the Capitals have a professional esports competitor?

Yep. His name is John "John Wayne" (yes, like the movie star) Casagranda, from Anchorage, Alaska. He grew up a die-hard Arizona Coyotes fan, but at the start of this season he was signed by the Washington Capitals' "Caps Gaming" arm as the first NHL video game esports pro signed to a NHL organization. John Wayne is very good at the game; in both the 2018 and 2019 seasons of the NHL Gaming World Championship (the NHL's official esports tournament for which 2020 qualifications are currently underway online), he placed third and second, respectively. He's one of the highest earning "chel" (what the NHL video game is affectionately called by many) players out there.

So what kind of video game events are the Capitals putting on right now?

There are two things happening with the Capitals, the first of which you might have seen news for already. One is regular-season game simulations (CPU vs. CPU) for the Capitals and Washington Wizards in the NBA on the NBC Sports Washington television station.

What involves John Wayne, however, is what you would be more interested in as a sports bettor and what you will see lines for in American sportsbooks. John Wayne has been playing select regular-season games as the Capitals against other top chel competitors. The games are broadcast on Twitch (a platform on which people primarily stream video games live). When I say "games," I mean a best-of-three series, which makes it longer and more entertaining for the viewers.

What can you tell me about the the upcoming series?

John Wayne has played four series so far. He opened with a tight 2-1 series loss against "Top Shelf Cookie," who happens to be the 2019 NHL Gaming World Champion and beat John Wayne in the final. John Wayne bounced back with back-to-back 2-0 series wins against Dangs92 (Ottawa Senators) and 2019 NHL GWC runner-up Jr Pens (Pittsburgh Penguins). In his latest series, he fell in three games to St. Louis Blues emergency goaltender Tyler "Daddy Padre" Stewart.

There are two series coming up:

Saturday vs. TactixHD (Detroit Red Wings)

I'm going John Wayne with confidence. JW is a more proven and accomplished competitor, and then you add in the struggling Detroit Red Wings, which will severely hinder TacTix, who is primarily a content creator. Luckily, he will make it entertaining while Alexander Ovechkin and the Caps hunt for goals.

Monday vs. CoreyPerry1 (Buffalo Sabres)

The Sabres aren't a very strong team in the game, and CoreyPerry1 (not the NHL player Corey Perry) has competed in a few qualifiers and ranked in the top 8 four times but has yet to earn money at an NHL esports event. This is another one where I would be looking at John Wayne as a prohibitive favorite and might add this as part of a parlay.

These are the announced games so far, but sources at Caps Gaming have told ESPN there might be more games added -- so if you're enjoying making picks here, there might be more coming.

On top of this and aside from official NHL teams, there are tournaments that are starting to pop up involving top competitors. When looking into these games, if lines appear, the two keys are: how good are the competitors, and how good are the teams they are controlling? A good resource to see past tournament results on the players is tdihockey.com.


What is NBA 2K?

NBA 2K is a basketball simulation video game developed by Visual Concepts and currently published by 2K Sports. The series has been released annually since 1999.

Wait, this isn't EA Sports?

No. EA also has an NBA series, NBA Live, that has been around since 1994. However, some editions have been canceled, including the 2020 edition.

How realistic is the game?

It's meant to be as realistic as possible. So, good teams should be good, bad teams should be bad, etc. It's meant to be a true-to-form representation of the NBA.

What about the NBA 2K League? What's that?

That is the official esports league for the NBA 2K video game franchise. Instead of NBA players in the game, esports competitors, in full teams, compete using their in-game avatars, representing NBA teams. Knicks Gaming, for example, is the NBA 2K League team of the New York Knicks; there's Lakers Gaming, Celtics Crossover Gaming, and so on.

Season 3 was set to start in New York in late March but has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But I still see NBA 2K games online, such as the Phoenix Suns' simulations. What gives?

The NBA season is suspended, but some teams, including the Suns, are simulating regular-season games. The Suns, in particular, are enlisting NBA 2K League players, actual NBA players and other athletes (they brought in NFL players Keenan Allen and Tony Jefferson for one game, for example) to play. You may not see too many lines here, however, because the announcements are usually made the day of the games.

League of Legends

What is League of Legends?

League of Legends is best described as a 5-on-5 game in which both teams start at their respective bases and the object of the game is to get to the other team's base and destroy it (more specifically, destroy its "Nexus," which is deep within the base and looks like a diamond shard lodged in a fountain).

This is the most popular esport in the world, a game that has been around since 2009 and continues to grow.

How many characters can players choose from?

There are almost 150 champions (as they are called in the game) players can use.

That's a lot. How do I know who to pick?

The playing field, or map, is always the same every game. There are three major distinct pathways: the top, mid and bottom lanes. The triangular areas in between the paths are called the "jungle." Based off this, there are five main positions in the game: Top Laner, Jungler, Mid Laner, Bot Laner (or AD Carry) and Support (a role that supports the bottom lane, so that lane usually has two champions in it). The champions in the game are mainly categorized by these roles, all with unique abilities. Some are bruisers that deal a lot of damage with their fists or weapons, some have a lot of armor and health to protect them, some use magic and special powers -- there are tons of possibilities. The complexity of the game is matching these powers and combining them with other champions' powers to create incredible teamfight scenarios (like plays in traditional sports).

What does a typical game look like?

It starts with a "draft." Teams ban certain champions (maybe the team doesn't like to play against that champion, or an opposing player is really good with a particular champion -- it helps level the playing field a bit), then they take turns picking from what's available and best for a strategy or team composition.

Once every player has made a pick, they begin the game. Players head to their lanes and begin gaining gold by eliminating "minions," which are computer-controlled characters in the game. Players level up their champions until they feel they have an advantage over their opponent in their lane, then they attack. You can attack at any time, it just might not be advantageous to do so (some champions are stronger than others at different points in the game). Around the map there are computer-controlled characters that offer strong increases in power and gold that spawn throughout the game; teams might come together to try and vanquish them.

One interesting part of the game is the "last-hit" rule. It's not the team that deals the most damage to these characters that will get the spoils, it's the team that gets the "last hit." That means one team can literally deal 999 or 1,000 of the damage necessary to eliminate a dragon, let's say, but if the opponent swoops in and times that last hit perfectly, their team "steals" the kill and therefore the spoils. So the as game goes on, champions will battle champions. Sometimes there will be 2-on-1 plays with players moving over to another lane, and other times there are 5-on-5 teamfights. ... Slowly but surely, both teams try to get to the other team's base to claim the nexus and win the game.

Why is this game so popular?

Once you watch a few games, you understand the basic fundamentals of what's happening, but the game is very complex, with infinite possibilities and scenarios. It keeps the game fresh and fun. There are items to buy, champion matchups that are fresh, strategies that emerge... not to mention every once in a while the game gets updated, which means some champions get statistics lowered or increased, making them stronger or weaker, new champions get introduced (like the latest champion, "Sett," best described as a pretty boy backyard brawler and seen a lot in top-level gameplay lately). This all factors in.

Rocket League

What is Rocket League?

This might be the easiest esport to understand. It's 3-on-3, cars hitting a ball. Literally, car soccer. You see it once, and you immediately understand what is happening.

So what makes it so interesting?

It's easy to learn, difficult to master -- the trick shots, the angles the pros are able to utilize during the game are incredible. You'll see cars flying up walls, stop midair and change their trajectory just to be able to hit the ball at a certain angle such that the opponent is unable to make a save and the ball will sail into the goal. Lots of these goals are very impressive to watch.

High level Rocket League play can be mind-blowing. It's no surprise that before the coronavirus pandemic, there was an esports event organized by Intel scheduled for a month before the Olympics in Tokyo, and one of the -two marquee esports titles selected was Rocket League. Its mass global appeal, simple-yet-complex gameplay and established, rabid fan base, position it well to become a top esport, especially with people who don't follow esports.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

What is CS:GO?

Imagine two teams of five people. One team, the offense, has a bomb it needs to plant at one of the designated bomb sites. The other team, the defense, is trying to stop them. If the offense can plant the bomb without its entire team dying or before the defense diffuses the bomb, the offense win the round. If not, the defense wins the round. Multiply this by 30 rounds (first to 16), and that's CS:GO. No magic, no special abilities, just the chance to buy better weapons/loadouts along the way.

Keep in mind, that's just scratching the surface. CS:GO might be the purest competition that exists in esports in many ways. It's an intricate game and offers the right level of complexity that has made the game (and scene) stand the test of time.

Who are the best teams?

According to the HLTV rankings, the best teams are NAVI, Astralis, G2, mouseesports and fnatic. Astralis is a dynasty-type team and has won multiple world championships, despite showing some cracks recently.