Esports in York: Socially distant socialization and COVID-era interaction

YORK, Maine –– The concept of forming an esports league had been looming in town even before the pandemic. It’s the “up and coming” thing, said York Parks and Recreation Director Robin Cogger.

Concerns about whether it was a good idea to encourage more screen usage through video game competition during a time when kids are already so heavily reliant on technology for learning and socialization were raised and discussed within the department, Cogger said.

“We really hesitated and we went back and forth,” Cogger said.

“We thought, you know what, instead of us deciding, why don’t we put it out there and let the community decide?” she added.

April 1 is the deadline to sign up for the town’s spring esports league, which will be held from April 10 to May 15. It’s $30 to join, and this season’s games include Rocket League, Madden 21, Super Smash Bros. and Fortnite. Age divisions are 8-12, 13-18, and 18-plus.

What is esports?

Participants in York’s league will play against other leagues across Maine.

“What we were hearing from families is that their kids were playing anyway, so we thought that this would provide an opportunity to give kids in our community the ability to play in an organized league with some oversight,” Cogger said.

Wyatt Hale, 12, has been playing video games for five to six years and will compete in Super Smash Bros. and Fortnite in the esports league this spring. Wyatt joined the winter league and found that playing other kids from different communities has made it more competitive and exciting.

“I was bored because of the pandemic … playing with random people I don’t even know is fun,” Wyatt said.

GGLeagues, a platform built for recreational esports players and communities, facilitates the matches, which are typically last an hour on Saturdays.

A way for kids to socialize during the pandemic

Wyatt’s mom, Kathryn Hale, said her son has learned a few new skills along the way.

“Him having to contact somebody and initiate a conversation, it’s a different way of socialization … they’re agreeing on a time, they’re agreeing on the terms that GGLeagues has set, and it makes him more independent.”

The matches usually last about 15 minutes, which makes it easy to fit into their schedules, she added.

Wyatt was inspired a few years ago by a kid who won $3 million in a Fortnite championship, according to his mother, who said she feels joining the esports league and playing competitively showed Wyatt the amount of effort and work it takes to succeed in gaming.

“Even though esports is not something physical, there’s a lot of work you have to put into it, and I think he realized that,” she said.

This will be the third season for esports, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive so far, said Recreation Coordinator Andy Kaherl.

“We had over 20 participate, which is fantastic for something new,” Kaherl said, adding that kids just want to be “a part of something.”

The other component is that some kids who aren’t involved with more traditional outdoor recreation leagues now have another way to participate, Kaherl said.

Some college offer esports scholarships

“Not every kid wants to go play basketball or, you know, participate in Yu-Gi-Oh! club … there’s always going to be gaps, and we always try to fill in the gaps and prevent kids from slipping through the cracks,” he said.

The increasing number of college esports scholarships being offered around the country is another reason why the league came to be, said Cogger and Kaherl. The first esports varsity program launched in 2014 at Robert Morris University in Chicago and has grown in popularity in subsequent years, with nearly 192 higher education institutions participating in the National Association of Collegiate Esports.

Continuation of the league in York will be dependent on the participation levels this spring, said Kaherl. The league could simply run its course.

“It’s hard to tell outside of a pandemic what it’ll look like, and things are starting to lift a bit,” Kaherl said, adding that Parks and Recreation did what it “needed to do”: provide an opportunity for the kids in the community when there weren’t many.


Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

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