Why Every Parks and Recreation Department Needs an Esports Offering and How to Get Started

Written by Rebecca Barton

Esports are on a meteoric rise in popularity. How can your parks and recreation department capitalize on the trend?

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Esports has been gaining popularity among players of all ages for two decades, but with COVID-19 temporarily restricting team sports participation and group activities, Esports leagues and events have boomed in communities across the country. If your recreation department is looking to add virtual engagement programing to your activity catalog and wants to stay on-trend, it may be time to plan your first Esports tournament.

What Are Esports?

Esports is a collective term for competitive electronic gaming. Players can participate as individuals or teams in live competitions. Flashback to the early 90s and imagine playing Super Mario Brothers on your living room couch as a child, but then connect your game to the Internet play with your best friend across town—or hundreds of other competitive gamers around the world. Not only is there a market for competing as Esport players, but events on the largest scale can also earn thousands (and sometimes millions) of live viewers—much like fans watching their favorite pro sporting events.

As an example of the popularity of Esports viewing, instead of a traditional NFL Pro Bowl in 2021, as our nation continued to battle the coronavirus, selected NFL Pro Bowl candidates played a competitive version of the popular EA’s NFL Madden ’21 video game on live TV. Not only is there interest in engaging celebrities in Esports, but some competitive players are earning celebrity status in the niche virtual sport. As of 2020, Johan Sundstein, a 26-year-old Danish man, ranked as the highest-earning Esports gamer globally, with a net worth of $6.9 million due to his competitive gaming success.

What does this meteoric rise in Esports mean for parks and recreation departments? It means the chance to bring an engaging, virtual program into your activity catalog and one that can accommodate your ongoing needs to socially distance people in your community. Read on to learn how to maximize this growing audience’s potential as a recurring revenue-builder for your department.

Become an Early Adopter

In terms of a parks and recreation activity, Esports is still in its infancy. There aren’t many examples from which to model this type of programming, but that’s part of its appeal. The possibilities are vast, and they appeal to those who may otherwise have had difficulty finding a place to fit in or locating an activity that provides the level of accessibility that gaming provides for audiences from all ages, backgrounds, and abilities. After all, this is what recreation aims to do to help people become engaged and involved in their community and increase their quality of life in the process.

Esports can bring people together in a new and unique way that solves many problems, some of which have been magnified since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and the necessary loss or limited access to city and county facilities or the need to maintain social distance. The pandemic has forced parks and recreation departments to reexamine their programming approaches while attempting to meet existing needs for people to stay active and not feel isolated. Having healthy, social activities for all ages is vital, and Esports can be a major player as an alternative form of social connection and community building.

How to Communicate the Benefits of Esports

When you launch your Esports events, get the word out in your community. Sell it as the cool, new, and unique activity that it has the potential to be. Work with schools, libraries, and after-school programs to distribute flyers and information. Make materials eye-catching while ensuring they appeal to parents. Parents are on the constant lookout for new, constructive activities for their kids to participate in, but video games can have a negative connotation with some adults. Do your best to curb this perception with detailed communication of program details, goals, and benefits. Competitive gaming in a group setting can provide many of the same lessons and skill building—such as teamwork and effective communication—as physical team sports. It’s a matter of perception. Provide statistics, data, and show that your program is a structured, positive opportunity for change and development where youth can have fun, develop friendships, and build important social skills.

Don’t Limit Your Audience

It’s a common misconception that video games and Esports are only for kids. Don’t forget that the adults of today were some of the first social gamers. Their interest in gaming has not faded; today's number of American adults playing video games is as high as 65 percent. Adults also need and are looking for ways to connect with others during this extended period of pandemic isolation. Even though the outlook is positive in terms of an approaching return to a pre-pandemic lifestyle, this type of program's positive effects could be a foundation to build on for years to come.

Ideas to Help Get Started

  • Utilize staff as coaches or program leaders as you might with any other activity.
  • Gauge interest and then create and plan a functional space accordingly, with the necessary technology and hardware, and adjust as you go.
  • Create detailed pre-and post-COVID-19 plans of implementation—socially distanced stations and setups and how they will change over time.
  • Plan events and invite an audience to attract participants and build community relationships.
  • Allow participants to register for events using your parks and recreation management software.
  • Pursue sponsorships and partnerships from local gaming businesses to help fund equipment, events, and programming.
  • Create structure and organization like any other program in the form of rules, practice, schedules, and exercises.
  • Hold all-age events as well as age-group-specific programs.
  • Develop mentorship opportunities within the program for kids that may need positive role models
  • Utilize constructive, positive games as your medium in the program—sports games, puzzle games, and creative games.
  • Post results, successes, team trophies, or accomplishments on your website and social media to attract interest and promote the program.
  • Hold tournaments within your local groups or connect with other neighboring communities and beyond.

Final Advice

Esports has been on the rise for several years, but its popularity is about to boom as gamers of all ages realize the convenience and benefits of digital engagement activities. By embracing this newest trend, your parks and recreation department will remain relevant with people of all ages and demonstrate your commitment to evolving your programing to meet new interests, events, and opportunities.