Move over, pickleball.
The latest offerings from Asheville’s Parks and Recreation Department zip along at a considerably faster pace than the trendy paddle game. Instead of bashing a perforated plastic sphere, players are white-knuckling cars in Rocket League, blasting foes in Fortnite and jumping into the shoes of professional athletes in Madden NFL 20 and NBA 2K20 — four video games that are now virtual playing fields for city-sponsored competition.
The new leagues are part of the department’s AVLPARKS eSports program, which began hosting games on Aug. 7. At a time when COVID-19 makes meeting up for in-person sports less safe, says Parks and Recreation staffer Maxime Pierre, virtual activities provide an outlet for competition and help to keep the department relevant.
But Pierre emphasizes that he and co-worker Kimberly Zygmant had been gearing up to offer esports well before the pandemic came to Western North Carolina. Video games, he suggests, allow the city to engage with a larger group of residents than had been served through traditional sports.
“Really the core of it is being able to reach out to a different participant than we normally would. Not everyone wants to go outside and play soccer and football,” says Pierre. “We should throw out a massively wide net and try to get as many diverse participants as we can.”
That approach has worked, at least in terms of the age range involved in the Asheville esports programs. Of the 96 registrants in August’s leagues, Pierre reports, the youngest is just 8, while the oldest is 59.
“The chasm from the oldest to the youngest is massive, which is fantastic,” Pierre says. “We can’t offer an athletic volleyball league and say, ‘We’ll definitely get a 22-year-old and a 59-year-old.’ Usually, they’re not in the same realm.”
Although the city doesn’t collect other demographic data on participants, Asheville is also designing its esports programs with an eye toward racial equity. Pierre notes that the first official Parks and Recreation offering to feature video games was a free full-day tournament of Madden NFL 20, NBA 2K20 and Dragon Ball Xenoverse hosted in February at the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center, located in Asheville’s historically Black Southside neighborhood.
Both Madden and NBA 2K20 are among the games offered in the ongoing esports leagues, which have no registration fees. Matt Carusona, director of programs and marketing for the nonprofit N.C. Recreation and Park Association, says video games allow cities to break down barriers that may discourage some residents from participating in municipal recreation programs.
While joining the Asheville leagues requires a gaming console or PC and an internet connection, many residents already have that equipment and don’t face additional costs to play. Pierre adds that the city is exploring partnerships that would allow participants without gaming devices of their own to borrow them.
“The key components and entry into esports are straightforward compared to the training and the equipment needed to play a sport like football or lacrosse,” Carusona points out. “According to a recent report by the Entertainment Software Association, 75% of U.S. households have at least one person who plays video games.”
Once participants are engaged through esports, Carusona continues, parks and recreation departments have more opportunities to connect with those players about other activities. In Asheville, Pierre hopes video games will provide a pathway for young residents to get involved in science, math and technology.
Before COVID-19 hit, Pierre explains, he and Zygmant had proposed an after-school program where participants would play games, then discuss career paths related to game development such as programming and graphic design. That effort is currently on hold due to social distancing restrictions.
Asheville is among a vanguard of North Carolina parks and recreation departments offering esports, says Carusona, who invited city staff to speak on the topic at several professional development events earlier this year. But he says the trend is spreading across the state, especially as municipalities look for new options during the pandemic.
Onslow County in the state’s southeast, Carusona says, added an esports league to its athletics programs after participating in an NCRPA event and hearing about Asheville’s work. Both Greensboro and Wake Forest have announced video game tournaments of their own; the town of Cary is incorporating a dedicated esports room and a 4,000-seat arena that can be converted to host esports in a new $193 million recreation complex.
And nationally, Parks & Recreation Magazine called esports “the next big thing” in a 2019 article. Recreation industry consultant Neelay Bhatt projected that competitive video games would soon reach cultural prominence similar to that of athletics: “With incremental growth leading to more than 500 million viewers and $3 billion in revenues globally in the next few years alone, it is only a matter of time before esports will be on par with traditional sports in participation and viewership.”
Pierre believes growth opportunities abound for esports in Asheville. Beyond the return of in-person tournaments and after-school programs, he says, the city is discussing collaborations with local comic book stores and the Asheville Anime Regional Convention to provide structure for the area’s gaming scene. While Jordan King, the convention’s chair, says those talks are in the early stages, he adds that many of his attendees are eager to participate in organized gaming and will likely join Asheville’s programs in the future.
“It’s already a trend, but I don’t see it waning at all, especially because of how much COVID has affected programming and how people are able to interact with one another,” Pierre says. “I might not be able to hang out with my friend or see them at school, but we can still socialize because we’re going to be playing this game.”