When the NCAA tournament was canceled in March, Akoy Agau was understandably disappointed. Aside from it being perhaps the greatest three-week spectacle in sports, the former Louisville big man would have seen his Cardinals earn a top-four seed on Selection Sunday.
But Agau also had an idea -- a virtual NCAA tournament. There have been computer and video game simulations done since March, but Agau had a different angle.
"When I was at Louisville and Georgetown, a bunch of guys played video games. What if we had a way to play the NCAA tournament?" Agau said. "Get someone from each of those universities, get guys to play out the tournament."
Agau is uniquely suited for this venture. Last fall, Agau and former Louisville manager Matthew Melander launched Primetimesports, a company that allows fans to interact with athletes and celebrities while streaming video games.
"We always wanted to do something with athletes, connect athletes with fans in a unique way," Melander said. "We were trying to think of a new way for fans to interact with their favorite athletes. And video games, the platform is becoming more and more popular. A lot of guys that played video games in college, they continue to play that during their professional careers. The live aspect, as opposed to a recorded podcast, is a fun way to interact with their favorite athletes."
With Primetimesports, athletes or celebrities stream video games via Twitch, then fans pay a small fee to ask a question of them or interact with them. From that money, the athlete or celebrity gets 50%, Primetimesports gets 50% -- and then Primetimesports gives a percentage to a different charity every month or every quarter.
Agau and Melander thought their platform could work for an NCAA tournament video game event. So they went about trying to find a senior -- or a player turning pro -- from each of the 68 teams in Joe Lunardi's final projected bracket. There was also the arduous task of re-creating every roster in NBA 2K, on both Xbox and PlayStation. Melander changed names, changed hometowns and cross-referenced statistics to make sure each player's attributes in the game were accurate.
"It was a pretty long process to be able to get everything in line," Melander said. "But it might be worth it for the players. I know they didn't get March Madness this year, but to experience it through a video game, with the right courts, the right teammates, things like that."
They reached out to players they had connections with, then went through college coaches and operations personnel to try to recruit players for the tournament. They ended up getting representatives from about 40 of the 68 NCAA tournament teams, including notable names like Kentucky's Immanuel Quickley, Maryland's Anthony Cowan, Penn State's Lamar Stevens and Florida's Kerry Blackshear.
The bracket is broken into two sides, with Xbox players on one side and PlayStation users on the other. From there, the two winners will flip a coin to determine on which system the championship game will be played. The champion will win $2,000 and the new PlayStation 5 when it comes out, or the monetary equivalent.
Matchups will start on Wednesday, with three games per night being streamed on Twitch starting at 6:15, 7:30 and 8:30 ET. Agau noted that it gives the company two weeks before the NBA season restarts, so he's hoping to get some of the NBA players in the bubble involved in supporting their former schools. For the schools without a representative, the opponent will earn a bye into the next round.
Half the money raised from fan question fees will be donated to two charities: Direct Relief (Agau's mother, a nurse, is currently in Texas fighting the coronavirus spread) and Save the Children.
"It's for bragging rights. We would love to make this an annual thing. It's a unique thing to do," Agau said. "A lot of those guys do play video games. So this is a good way to help raise money, get money in their pocket, people can tune in and watch and support their guy. A last hurrah to support one of their guys."