Recreational fields, with an electrifying atmosphere during a Friday night flag football championship, have turned desolate. Squeaking sneakers on the basketball courts on the second floor of the recreation center are now silent. What once was a community centered around fun and competition is now left deserted at the hands of the coronavirus. Or is it?
Intramural sports have taken a turn this semester, focusing heavily on the increase of esports in the campus recreation community. In recent years, esports have caught the attention of many young people and businesses, as its popularity and revenue have skyrocketed.
Competitive video games have not only created careers but an immersive environment in a world where virtual interactions are the new norm.
Assistant Director for Sports Programs Zachary Wallace is trying to bring that culture to the University of Massachusetts this year to rejuvenate a community which has been restrained from its familiar activities for the overall health and well-being of its members.
“Esports is very new and budding,” Wallace said. “It hasn’t grown into the full-fledged flower that it should be because it will be huge once schools around the country pick up on it. It’s already a billion-dollar industry at high level competition and we’re trying to figure out where students in a recreational standpoint fit into that picture.”
Focusing on this new facet of campus recreation, Wallace has faced challenges with his fellow staff members. Trying to build a virtual community is not easy, and is certainly an uncharacteristic assignment for anyone involved.
“It’s been kind of rough,” Wallace said. “Obviously our recreation professional staff is used to being in person more often than not, but we’re doing our best to put out what we’d want as a recreation department from a student perspective. We’re putting out virtual classes online, esports, online trivia and bingo through Twitch. We understand the health and wellness benefits of recreation as a whole and to keep pushing those out to students and the UMass Amherst community is our No. 1 goal.”
As difficult as the process might be, students have been enjoying the move to the esports community. Intramural esports tournaments, run through IMLeagues, have held two events so far, one for both Rocket League and Madden 20.
Junior Andrew Mann, this semester’s most recent Rocket League champion, decided to join this tournament after all physical intramural sports were canceled for the semester.
“That was one of the biggest things for us,” Mann said. “We like to play intramural soccer on campus and not being able to do that was kind of a bummer. Having these online game tournaments, I think is a great way for people to still compete in a friendly way.”
Competition was the same focus for junior Sam Capobianco, the undefeated champion of October’s Madden 20 tournament. Also known by his gamertag CAP0B1ANC0 33 on Xbox, Capobianco prepared around homework and the gym to take this opportunity to showcase his talent as if it were any other sporting event.
“I definitely took it seriously,” Capobianco said. “I’m a competitor. If I can’t compete in physical sports, I’m going to compete in esports. I definitely tried my hardest to prove that I’m a good Madden player.”
As vital of a role competition plays in the popularity of esports, oftentimes people play for other reasons. Virtual classes have increased the stress and workload for students this semester who already have limited free time to do what they enjoy.
Video games are a way for students to escape from the anxiety of class, work or anything negatively affecting their mental health. Playing video games can improve players’ moods and has fundamental emotional benefits for anyone suffering from mental health issues.
“Stress has gone up dramatically for most students,” Wallace said. “Workload, even though everything is online, seems to have gone up because of the new challenges of virtual learning and it pushes students to come into esports if that’s what they really like to do. It gives them time to express themselves, relax, chat with friends or someone new and connect back with campus.”
As far as participation in these events, Wallace, to no surprise, has seen a slight decrease compared to last year since all other sports have been canceled for the fall. The esports community, however, has been just as strong as any other sport in regard to the environment it creates for students.
“The engagement we’ve gotten from people who really want to get involved with their specific esport has gone very well,” Wallace said. “I think the students are getting out of it what they wanted to, which is interaction that is school supported and gives them a little more connection to campus while they’re away.”
UMass has kept esports at the intramural level since its recent prevalence in youth entertainment. In previous years there has been a student-run esports club at UMass with no affiliation to campus recreation, a common sight at most universities. Some schools, however, take esports under their wing as they consider it as competitive and legitimate as other club sports.
“I know other schools that have successful teams where the university puts money into a program and gives them a space to play,” Capobianco said. “I think that it’s definitely the future where, similar to traditional sports, there’s a pro level and a college level which creates pro players. Esports is becoming such a big thing where at the college level there are definitely enough people to compete and create some good competition.”
Not only would an esports program be as competitive as any other sport at the University, but it could also open the door for more students to pursue degrees in an esports related field.
As trends continue to show more and more participation in large-scale esports events, the opportunities for students to participate should follow the same path.
“It’s interesting because esports athletes are considered just as professional as normal, traditional sports where they’re making big salaries playing esports,” Capobianco said. “Definitely expect kids to take it more seriously.”
Kevin Schuster can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @KevinESchuster.