Interview: Toronto Blue Jays player Bo Bichette pivots to esports

The shortstop talks playing competitive video games, what he's doing during the pandemic and his hopes for the return of baseball

It’s April and there’s no baseball.

Many things are on hold as we practise distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19, but without Blue Jays opening day at the Rogers Centre, it feels like spring hasn’t arrived in Toronto.

Bo Bichette feels that. The 22-year-old second-year shortstop was part of a young core of Blue Jays, along with fellow rising stars Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio, that was going to propel the team for years to come – and hopefully surprise some fans this year with their success.

The status of this year’s MLB season is up in the air, though there has been early talk of a potential shortened season at a few empty ballparks in a neutral location. While we wait for that to start, Bichette has kept himself busy with a different kind of competition: esports. He’s been playing in a 30-player (one representative from each time) MLB The Show Players League, and he’s been performing at a high level.

He currently sits second in the American League East behind Blake Snell of the Tampa Bay Rays and looks to make a push in his games tonight (April 23) at 7 pm on Twitch. If he makes it to the playoffs, which he’s on track to do, he’ll be playing on ESPN – the American sports network leader has been pivoting hard into esports.

I caught up with Bichette over the phone from his home in St. Petersburg, Florida, not far from the Blue Jays spring training facilities, to talk about video games, what he’s doing during the quarantine and his hopes for the return of baseball.

How’s your quarantine going?

It’s going as good as it can. Just watching a lot of movies and playing a lot of video games.

You got called up to the Blue Jays midway through last season, so this would have been your first full season in the majors. Does that make it more frustrating that the season is up in the air?

Yeah, I was super excited. Not only for me individually, but I thought our team had a really good chance of surprising a lot of people. I would say pretty much everybody on the team believes we can compete [for a playoff spot]. So it’s definitely frustrating. But at the same time, every athlete can look around and realize there’s people in a lot worse positions than us. There’s a bigger problem we’ve got to figure out before we go back to playing. So, yes, tough for us. But we also know it’s tough for everybody.

You’ve been playing in this MLB The Show Players League and also a Call Of Duty Royale charity tournament with other athletes like Paul George. Has that been keeping you busy while the baseball season is delayed? 

Yeah man, it’s funny when people ask me for things and I’m like, “I have to check my schedule.” Sometimes I feel weird because you’re really not supposed to have anything going on right now. But I’ve had a lot of fun with all of it.

How did you get involved with the MLB The Show players tournament? Is it something you sought out?

My agent was just approached by somebody and he asked me. At first I was like, yeah, sure, why not? I didn’t think much of it. But it’s become a lot more competitive than I anticipated.

Do you find yourself tapping into the same competitive spirit you’d have playing baseball in real life?

Yeah, for sure. Every time I’ve played it’s gone down a little bit. But then every time I turn it on again, the juices are flowing and adrenaline is going. That’s been kind of surprising.

You’re doing well in this tournament, currently second in the AL East and on track for the playoffs. Did you have experience with this game already? Would you consider yourself a serious gamer? 

Honestly, no. I was never a big video game guy. I mean, I’ve played my whole life but I’d play for a couple of days and then not pick it up again for a whole month.  But since the quarantine started I’ve been playing every day. And I just got good pretty quick. It’s been fun to get opportunities to play with some stakes – with something on the line.

A lot of professional athletes have been getting into esports during the quarantine. Do you see that as something that can fill that void while you wait? 

Everybody’s going to find their thing they want to do to pass time, but for me it’s video games. These tournaments give me something to look forward to, which is nice. A lot of people don’t have that. So it helps mentally.

Do you find being a professional ball player helps you in the esports version, especially since you’re playing as the Jays? Are you bringing in inside knowledge of your team?

Everybody is a professional in the league, so I don’t think anybody’s got too much of an edge in that aspect. I think hitters probably have an advantage [over pitchers].

How so?

I think hitters just see both sides of the ball better. Some pitchers have backgrounds in hitting, or they’re just really good at the video game. But I think that just naturally a hitter’s probably got a better chance.

Maybe it keeps you in the habit of spotting balls and strikes?

It sometimes feels like you’re actually taking the at-bat. I definitely wouldn’t tell anybody to practise with the video game, but it’s not bad for a last-chance opportunity.

You joked on Twitter that your teammate Vlad Guerrero Jr. doesn’t have enough power in MLB The Show. 

Vladdy has the most power I’ve ever seen [in person]. Everybody saw the home run derby. The league has the game on a pretty easy difficulty level. And Vladdy has no homers for me yet. So that’s definitely not realistic. They need to up that power a little bit.

What about the version of you in the game? How do you feel about your skill level?

I’m pretty bad, too. But it’s all right, I gotta perform for a little bit longer than a couple of months to make them change that.

These esports tournaments give your fans some access to your personality. You’ve been doing some stuff, like the dinner thing you did with Serge Ibaka and Bianca Andreescu (among others) at the halftime show of the Christmas Day Raptors game. You’re starting to become a media figure outside of baseball. Especially compared to when your dad [Dante Bichette] was playing, it seems like being a player is about more than just playing baseball now. 

There are so many platforms and opportunities to build your brand and impact people in a positive way, so I think it’s important to take advantage of those opportunities. But at the same time, I grew up my whole life wanting to be the best baseball player that I could be. So all that other stuff takes a backseat when the season is happening. It’s for when I feel like I can take time off of my main focus, which is baseball.

There has been some talk in the last couple of days about a potential plan to eventually bring back baseball without fans in a few neutral sites in Florida, Arizona and Texas. Would you be up for that if that’s on the table?

Well, nothing is on the table yet as far as I am aware. Those are mostly rumours and speculation right now. I think they’ve been discussed. Just no formal offer. As players, we want to play. There are some issues left to work out. But I think our main priority is just to get out there and play as soon as we can.

What’s going to be the first thing you do when the quarantine lifts? 

Just play baseball. I hope that’s what we’re doing when or after the quarantine is lifted. I hope that I don’t have any time to think of anything to do, just go play ball. I’ve been preparing for this season for seven months now.


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