You could be forgiven if you didn’t think the Leathernecks won the men’s basketball national championship, or if you’ve never heard of Van. The reason being, they didn’t — and Van is not real.
Van is a character created during a “College Hoops 2K8” video game dynasty run by SB Nation sportswriter Ricky O’Donnell. But while Deke Van is not a real person, he does have a real Twitter and he and his team have an Instagram account and a Homefield brand T-shirt. Tales of their exploits have been included in fan-faction novels, detailed statistics spreadsheets, Reddit threads and a Substack newsletter that has thousands of (real) subscribers.
None of this was planned by O’Donnell, 33, whose avatar coach is known as “Ricky Charisma,” when he started the dynasty after last season’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament was canceled due to the covid-19 pandemic.
“At that point there were no sports. I was as sportswriter with no sports to write about every day,” O’Donnell said.
Mulling his options, O’Donnell decided to pick up an old idea he had to write a tribute to one of his favorite video games, “College Hoops 2K8,” but he couldn’t think of a worthy angle. Instead he opted to blog through a collection of seasons spent in the game, with a guiding question, “Could I take the worst team in the game and win a national championship?”
Western Illinois University was the closest, lowest-tier team to Chicago, where O’Donnell lives, and so he selected them, wheeled out an Xbox 360 “that sounds like a f—ing air conditioner” and got to work with recruiting and inputting coaching strategies. He decided to simulate the games, cataloguing the first two seasons and taking photos of the game on his TV screen. His comprehensive reports include game recaps, recruiting strategy, player analysis, team matchup breakdowns and more.
People were “pretty into it” he said, enough to motivate him to simulate and chronicle seasons three and four. O’Donnell said the recap post for those seasons garnered over 100,000 views on SB Nation. This traction came at an optimal time, since O’Donnell was furloughed on May 1. After that, he moved the series to Substack, where he would eventually amass a subscriber base of about 7,000 email addresses — a fan base that would also give him some financial support during the furlough.
For fans, the video game dynasty, and the associated world that sprung up around it, helped fill a void left by the unprecedented lack of sports and related socializing.
“I don’t think I realized how much the actual sports calendar impacted my day-to-day,” said Bobby Loesch, 34, of Chicago. Loesch knew O’Donnell from a decade prior, when they blogged about sports together.
“When the rug got pulled out from under us, I felt more aimless on a day-to-day basis,” he said about the pandemic-related cancellation of live sport contests. “[O’Donnell’s simulated dynasty] was something to look forward to when lockdown ramped up. … It was a huge deal for the first couple months.”
Driving much of the anticipation among the community was if and when O’Donnell’s team would win a national championship. Year 3 saw them make the NCAA tournament. Year 5 saw them win their first tournament game. As interest grew in his team’s progress, he decided to start streaming the games on Twitch by pointing his phone at this television.
“The more community-based it became, overall, the more it meant to me,” Loesch said.
By Year 8, a lore had grown around Deke Van, a three-star recruit at center who was the heart of the team and spawned a made-for-TV story line. Van spent his senior year seeking redemption after a terrible shot in the previous year’s tournament, one that allowed the Leathernecks’ opponent to hit a buzzer beater to break Van’s virtual heart and those of the real readers and viewers following his tale.
As a senior, Van would come through. With 2,500 people concurrently watching on Twitch, Van led WIU to a national championship. O’Donnell celebrated with Malort, a Chicago liquor. Apparel company Homefield made a T-shirt to commemorate Van and the win.
“It’s not often we have a chance to make a shirt for a fictional sports icon,” said Connor Hitchcock, co-founder and CEO of Homefield Apparel, which makes licensed vintage college logo sportswear. Hitchcock found out about the dynasty because he is “terminally online” and saw O’Donnell’s tweets and posts.
“For people who understand it, it feels like an inside joke or secret they’re a part of,” Hitchcock said. All net proceeds of the 150 shirt run went to O’Donnell while he was furloughed. Homefield did not have any Western Illinois University merchandise previously, and Hitchcock said the shirt was bought by fans of the school as well.
“My mom got me that T-shirt for my birthday, and it was my centerpiece birthday gift,” said Loesch, who said the national championship was the peak of the dynasty for him.
Along with the fan-created social media accounts, in-depth statistics databases and merch, a dynasty follower in Japan wrote two self-published novels based on the team’s players. A third installment is due. O’Donnell runs a bracket tournament where the winner gets to create a player in the game. Spinoff “series” have also been created, including on “NBA 2K20” where Deke Van and other (fake) Leathernecks have been created.
Though he still follows it, Loesch said he sees the dynasty as a “perfect frozen moment in time during the pandemic.”
“But for me, the real thing trumps the digital world,” he said.
O’Donnell said he is planning to leg out the final seasons in his dynasty at WIU, which the game caps at 40. Back at SB Nation covering traditional sports, he plans to maintain his WIU coverage, though at a reduced clip.
“It’s obviously the nerdiest s— ever, I never expected this to happen, and part of me still feels bad when I tweet about it and do it,” he said. “But the wildest thing is people really care. They debate about the characters’ legacies, ‘Who’s the best Leatherneck player of all time?’ … Some people knew my work before, but now I feel like now they’re kind of my friends.”