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What you need to know about adopting an esports strategy in community recreation.

Esports will be this generation’s pastime as baseball was to the previous generation. It was a subset of sports culture, but it is now a full-blown industry.

In 2019, it was estimated 1.57 billion people around the world participated. According to Insider Intelligence estimates, viewership overall is up from 454 million in 2019 to 646 million in 2023. If you partner this type of growth with a brand like the Y, the impact can be unprecedented. Therefore, the Y must find a place in this phenomenon much like it is the leader in traditional youth sports.

A curriculum-based program can help lead a pathway to college. Nearly 200 U.S. colleges offer 15 million in scholarships. Esports director, Kevin Rocha from the University of North Texas at Dallas, said they are looking for a recruiting pipeline for their collegiate esports team. Given the broad reach of the Y, it can become this pipeline for many colleges around the country. There are two keys to success. One is intentional youth development work centered around outcomes. The other is disruption of the status quo that moves the needle forward.

For generations, the Y has found ways to integrate positive growth opportunities beyond just what a young person can do with a ball or what stroke they can master in water. An esports focus can have the same long-term impact. Education must be provided for parents to demonstrate what the difference is between going to a gaming center and the Y. Many parents see through the lens of when they grew up. For many, that may have been before social media was popularized. Connections now are different for youth. They build global perspective, cultural competency and truly see their world-wide connections as friends. It is critical the Y marry foundational strategies for youth development with the cutting edge of esports to create a program that will prepare youth for life beyond high school.

The benefits of intentionally adopting an esports strategy to grow are many, but there are a few pitfalls as well. Esports has been criticized by some in recent years for lack of representation by females and people of color. The Entertainment Software Association reported 45% of U.S. gamers are female, yet women make up a scant portion of the professional sports player pool.

The high number of participants can be celebrated but there comes a drop off at some point for females to move on to the next level. Industry leaders say this is because of the toxic environment. The Y can be deliberate about using current DEI imperatives to foster inclusivity for those underrepresented. Our goal as a youth development organization is to mitigate toxic environments that precludes a person’s success and prepare youth for evolving in their 21st century global society.

Danny Martin, the CEO of Esposure and an African American industry leader, said “Programs that provide education to youth about the business of esports and competitive gaming helps to empower more BIPOC and females with the knowledge of career opportunities.”

In addition, esports is not an inexpensive activity. Under resourced populations are not always afforded the opportunity and access to participate due to cost. There are creative ways to help fund these opportunities and ensure access to youth from all types of communities. Recently, the YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas was rewarded with funding from Dallas City of Learning Neighborhood Resource Initiative to host a summer esports camp. An in-person and virtual camp will be offered with personalized coaching, character development curriculum, nutritious lunch and wellness for healthy gaming. This unique experience will provide young people the opportunity to engage with others in a customized program experience they might not otherwise get due to cost.

Contrary to antiquated labels put on video gamers being unhealthy, introverted and grungy young people, esports has come to be about bringing a healthy, communal and structured form of team play. A fundamental esports strategy is to engage youth responsibly. Teach them healthy ways to game that will promote robust relationships, positive identity and transferrable skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking. It is to this end youth are positioned to excel.

This article is inspired by the Causenetic podcast, Gaming – Not Just Child’s Play. 

Keith Vinson

Keith Vinson is the vice president of operations at the YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas. He and Rodrigua Ross, the vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at the Dallas Y host a weekly podcast called “Causenetic.” Check it out at ymcadallas.org/causenetic.

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