Esports and virtual programming on the rise during COVID

Roman Uglehus

Sports Editor

ruglehus@unca.edu

Photo by Roman Uglehus                                  FIFA among one of many sports video games popular in the esports community.

The cancelations and delays brought onto athletics by COVID-19 impacted many across the country, some continue to struggle while others find success with online programming.

Local youth soccer clubs Highland Football Club and Asheville Buncombe Youth Soccer Association began playing competitively again last month, but the club looks vastly different from how it looked at the beginning of the year.

“We shut down everything in the middle of March and got back out on the field in the middle of June doing social distanced soccer training,” said Executive Director Mike Rottjakob. “ABYSA and HFC have been more cautious than most of our peers in North Carolina in terms of not being the very first club to implement reduced restrictions and giving our families lots of time when we tell them what the next change is in terms of it being less restrictive, let them digest that information, make decisions about whether they’re comfortable with participating in that.”

According to Rottjakob, the club currently operates at 35 percent of what it normally would be for the fall season in terms of registered players at the club.

“The impacts have been pretty big and we don’t know how long it will take to get back into kind of a normal situation. So we’re still playing it by ear and providing programming to families as safely as we can, but trying to keep the club alive,” Rottjakob said.

One effect of the club’s massive decline in player registration can be seen in that the club has 53 percent less full time workers due to employee cuts.

“We had 15 full time employees prior to COVID-19, right now we’re down to seven full time employees. It’s kind of like a skeleton crew,” Rottjakob said. “There’s a lot of expenses during the entire time we’ve tried to provide service for families.”

HFC and ABYSA include two of the thousands of sports clubs impacted financially across the U.S. because of COVID-19. According to The Aspen Institute, more than 10,000 municipal park and recreation departments with sports programs were cut as of mid July due to the financial setbacks brought on by COVID-19.

According to Mikkel Patterson, an athletic coordinator for Asheville City’s Parks and Recreation Department, the city did not provide any athletic league play or competitions in the summer due to the logistics and safety of the participants.

“We really were not doing any leagues or tournaments,” Patterson said. “As long as we were in Phase 1 or 2, we were not running any leagues or tournaments. The goal was once we got to Phase 3, we could start at least tournaments up, but Phase 3 wasn’t completely what we thought it was.”

Many athletic facilities and departments turned to virtual programs as a result of COVID-19.

Beate Mark-Madden, who works part time at the Asheville Racquet Club South as a personal trainer, provided virtual training during the summer as COVID-19 closed the ARC’s gym and indoor fitness areas.

“Come March, we shut down. I kept some clients, a small number, we picked it up on FaceTime,” said Mark-Madden. “There’s a learning curve, especially with older people, when they’re a little bit more technically challenged. It went well actually to my surprise. I learned to cue more precisely and they learned to maybe feel the exercise more. I learned a lot and they learned.”

According to Patterson, the city’s parks and recreation centers also provided virtual programming.

“I know our Facebook page during the summer, and currently, there were a few of our staff that would do little things at the rec centers. They would do a videotape of it, some exercising for families and adults, little games and activities, different ways of keeping kids active. They were able to utilize our social media platform and our support staff are able to take another role with that and be able to help out the community virtually,” Patterson said.

Kimberly Zygmant, who works as the recreation facility manager at Asheville City Parks and Recreation Department’s Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center, work to provide virtual programs for local kids.

“Our standpoint is mainly summer camps, so we looked at how we can offer something different. We went ahead and tried to offer a virtual summer camp, they would hop online and they would do crafts, crafts was mainly the big one. We just did a virtual camp,” Zygmant said.

Along with virtual programming, many athletic facilities and athletic centers decided to provide virtual competitions and esports programs.

UNC Asheville’s Campus Recreation Center provided an esports style tournament to students during the spring semester, when most students were off campus due to the university’s move to remote instruction. Students competed in tournaments of either the popular smartphone game Golf Battle or FIFA 20, a soccer video game.

Asheville City’s Parks and Recreation Department also debuted their new esports programing earlier this year.

“There was another guy that used to work here, his name is Max, he and I worked together on making a third-party contractor to come in to run our esports leagues for us,” Zygmant said. “So, we have a platform that we use and that started at the end of July. We offered Madden, NBA 2K, Fortnite and Rocket League. We’re getting ready to gear up for our fall esports league. We’ve had to transition to that and then going with that, getting more involved with esports leagues, Mikkel jumped in and he started doing some fantasy football stuff to link all into all that virtual stuff.”

According to Zygmant, Asheville City’s Parks and Recreation quickly got good registration numbers for the department’s new esports league.

“We had 60 sign up in one weekend, which was awesome. We have over 80 people enrolled in it,” Zygmant said. “We had people register for our esports leagues, a lot of people that never have done any programming with us before. We already knew that there was kind of like a gamer population but we didn’t know what we would get, so it was really great that we had such support from that community.”

Patterson also said the introduction of the esports league led to more outside members coming to joinAsheville’s recreation department.

“It’s been an opportunity to have some community members that are signing up, but when it comes to targeting other populations outside of what we’re already working with, it’s getting more people involved with our parks and rec system. There are a lot of ones that are signing up for esports and virtual programming that have probably never seen inside of Grant or Stephens-Lee, or didn’t even know they even existed, and they probably live right down the road. It’s been a good opportunity promotional-wise for us but being able to get keyed in with a new population, it’s been very successful,” Patterson said.

As Asheville City’s Parks and Recreation Department continues to set into motion their new league, the global popularity for esports continues to rise. According to Newzoo, an analytics database for video games, the current 2020 worldwide esports revenue stands at $950.3 million. Also, according to Newzoo, the global esports audience population grew 12.2 percent from 2018 to 2019.

According to Patterson, esports provides a unique opportunity for some people that regular sports might not.

“When it comes to sports, you have to have somebody with skills. Excluding soccer and baseball, like in basketball, if you want to make the NBA, your average point guard is still 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4, and if you’re in Western North Carolina, if you’re 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4, that’s your center. Being able to offer esports and gaming online, it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl, if you have a disability or a handicap, Black, white, Hispanic. A lot of that is out the window and so it’s been able to bring a community together with esports,” Patterson said.

Asheville’s Parks and Recreation currently provide leagues for the esports competitions, but they are planning on adding tournament play in the future, according to Zygmant.

“Right now it’s league play. We tried to do an in-person tournament but the weather was not good. We did an in-person tournament back in February before all of this and it was really fun. That one was with kids. We’re going to be doing an online tournament hopefully next month if I can get it all together. There’s not really a lot to get together. I just need to sit down and do it, get the discord and all that stuff,” Zygmant said.

According to Zygmant, some of the public needs to see how big of an industry esports can become.

“Before COVID hit, the gaming industry was projected to be a $1 billion industry by this year anyway, so I think COVID just further showed this really is a thing, it’s not going away. That’s one of the other things, people are like “oh they like playing video games as a kid.’ No, it’s a lifelong hobby, this is something that people do, we just happened to start playing it as kids and we’re growing older,” Zygmant said.

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