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How community centers are connecting members through esports.

Community recreation centers are always looking for new, engaging programs to bring to their members. A great one to add to your offerings is esports. 

The esports market has boomed in recent years with more and more viewers tuning in to watch their favorite games. According to Statista, by 2023 there are expected to be 646 million viewers of esports worldwide, nearly doubling from the 395 million in 2018. 

When COVID-19 hit, many facilities saw esports as an excellent opportunity to keep their members engaged while staying safe. The YMCA of Austin in Austin, Texas, was one of them.  

“Esports are a great way to stay connected with friends while we’re still social distancing,” said Sean Doles, the vice president of mission advancement for the YMCA of Austin. “Esports also engages people with different skill sets and interests in a fun, competitive environment. Some of these are kids and adults who might not be involved with traditional Y sports, so it helps us connect to a broader audience.”

When COVID-19 interrupted the Austin Y’s in-person sports and forced social distancing, they adapted to offer a variety of virtual esports leagues and tournaments. From Rocket League and League of Legends to Madden NFL 20 and FIFA 20, the Y offers kids of all ages the opportunity to test their skills in a fun, safe environment.

“We really haven’t seen any challenges,” said Doles. “Fortunately, we’ve partnered with GGLeagues to run our programs, and they have handled everything with the utmost professionalism.”

In a nutshell, Doles said they outsource the administration of the esports program to GGLeagues on a 30/70 split. Participants register with the Y through their customer relationship management software. The Y then sends the roster to GGLeagues. From there, GGLeagues gets participants set up on their platform, organizes the schedules, and monitors and referees the competitions. “GGLeagues invoices us and we pay them their cut,” said Doles. “The only time required on our end is marketing. It’s not a typical Y youth sports experience per se, but we’re just getting started so that will definitely evolve.”

The Austin YMCA isn’t the only facility that formed a partnership to offer esports.

The Mitch Park YMCA, a branch of the YMCA of Greater Oklahoma City, partnered with the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) to introduce the YMCA Esports League.

Those who join the program will participate in games at The CO-OP on the UCO Campus in Edmond, Oklahoma. The 5,703-square-foot space houses more than 48 high-end PC gaming stations featuring high-fidelity visuals and RTX 2080 graphic cards for consistently high frames per second, two virtual reality booths, five Nintendo Switch consoles, and a growing library of popular board and tabletop games.

“Very similar to traditional sports, esports provides opportunities for children to participate in team activities, gain social interaction through communication with teammates, improve strategy and problem-solving skills, and provides educational opportunities through programming and STEM,” said Chris Berry, the district executive director for the Mitch Park Y. “During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, esports has been a safe way for kids to participate in an activity and engage with others.”

Much like the Austin Y, esports has attracted members who typically don’t participate in sports to the Mitch Park Y.

“We are seeing participants in our fall esports league that would not have participated in the traditional sports league,” said Berry. “It is allowing us to make sure the YMCA is a place for all. One great benefit of esports is everyone can participate. We have seen first-hand the sense of belonging and excitement through a participant with autism.”

While esports is a great way to be inclusive and attract new members, it also comes with challenges. 

“Integrating any new offering is a challenge, and in a community center we must be particularly mindful of how all the parts work together so we can create synergy,” said Michael Rawl, the previous executive director of the JCC of Youngstown. “It is important to understand how esports fits into your business and/or membership models. How does it drive revenue and participation?”

A specific esports challenge the JCC of Youngstown has faced has been how esports can fit into its supervisory structure. “As a new technology that many of our senior level supervisors are not familiar with, we have to be intentional about educating ourselves and hiring staff who have the appropriate expertise,” said Rawl. 

Berry agreed technology and costs can be an intimidating factor and create challenges for your facility. However, Berry said there are many options and various price levels available when implementing an esports league. Programs could be offered at costs lower than many of the traditional sports your facility has.

While your facility may be concerned about the stigma around video games and screen time, Berry said if offered correctly members will show up.

“As we began our planning and implementation, we found more people are open to the idea of this non-traditional sport,” he explained. “When conducted in an appropriate environment, participants gain as much as kids participating in traditional sports.”

Whether you are looking for an engaging program while your members are socially distanced or to reach a new population, connecting members through esports is a great addition to your organization. 

“Esports continues to see double digit percent increases every year in participation and viewership,” said Berry. “This is something that will continue to rise. Community organizations should consider adding esports to meet the demand, and to provide activities and opportunities to all members of the community when traditional sports may be unavailable.” 

Taylor Brown

Taylor Brown is the assistant editor of Community Rec Magazine. She can be reached at taylor@peakemedia.com.

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