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Esports is growing in popularity among children, teenagers and college students, and is a trend community rec centers should be capitalizing on to further engage its younger members and help them build community.

To take advantage of this trend, the Jewish Community Center of Youngstown in Youngstown, Ohio, launched a new, state-of-the-art esports arena, which officially opened August 3.

“Esports can be used for educating children about team building, communication, strategy and more,” said Michael Rawl, the executive director of the Youngstown JCC. “We’ve also learned gamers can build community with like-minded individuals across the world — something they do not always have the opportunity to do in Youngstown.”

The arena features 18 state-of-the-art computer gaming stations, and seven large TVs, each connected to Xbox, Nintendo Switch and Playstation consoles. The Youngstown JCC also subscribes to ggLeap, an online platform that gives access to thousands of games.

Throughout the day, the Youngstown JCC hosts free play in the esports arena, as well as leagues and tournaments participants can join in-person or at home.

“We provide a safe, state-of-the-art environment with professional esports coaches and have opportunities for all ages,” said Rawl. “Our community has received the new arena with much anticipation and excitement.”

Although the dedicated space was recently opened, the Youngstown JCC has been hosting online esports programming for several weeks to give kids and teens opportunities to participate while they were at home during COVID-19 shutdowns.

“We decided to launch the program earlier than planned,” explained Rawl. “Originally, pre-pandemic, we were not going to launch the program until the physical arena was built, but decided that with many gamers stuck at home, we should begin to offer online tournaments, which we did with great success.”

Now that many participants are able to come to the Youngstown JCC in-person, they’ll get to experience an esports arena that had a lot of research go into its design.

“When this idea was first considered, we did an incredible amount of investigation,” said Rawl. “We received support from Lenny Silberman’s Lost Tribe esports program out of Pittsburgh, and we visited the University of Akron’s Varsity esports team and their multiple arenas.”

In fact, this investigation showed Rawl and his team how beneficial esports can be as a youth program. “It became clear this program would create synergy with our other offerings,” he said. “Now, we incorporate esports into our day camp, afterschool programs, party rentals and more.”

With so much virtual entertainment in the hands of kids and teens today, adding esports to a community recreation setting is a great way to help young people develop their own community and learn important social skills while participating in an activity they love.

“We believe this program will have a significant impact on the 300 children who attend school in our building daily, and the thousands of local people who use the Jewish Community Center for swimming, dance classes, music instruction, summer camp, fitness, cultural arts and more,” said Rawl.

Bobby Dyer

Bobby is the former editor of Community Rec Magazine.

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