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Park & Recreation launches esports league

By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter

Even before the pandemic made activities where people are breathing heavily, grabbing and holding you, and communally sharing a ball with nine or more people far less attractive than before, esports and video game-based competitions were becoming extremely popular. Worldwide, some video game tournaments are viewed by more people than the Super Bowl, many of the top YouTube channels are video game related, and when COVID-19 put all other sports on hold, ESPN even opted to show both esport tournaments and have NBA players play televised video games against each other.

Looking to get in on the trend, Medfield Park & Recreation created the eSports Metrowest League for kids between third and twelfth grade from Medfield, Medway, Dover and Norwood. The league debuted this week, with players facing off against each other in Madden, NBA2K, Super Smash Brothers and Fortnite. Director of Medfield Medfield Park & Recreation Kevin Ryder explained that the rising popularity of video games made him want to create the league.

“Both Mark [Ghiloni of Dover Parks and Recreation] and I were at the national parks and recreation convention last year in Baltimore, and esports was a big, big topic as part of the future of programming. It definitely is a popular medium, especially with kids in that fourth-through-eighth-grade bracket. They play these games at home. They’ve been playing for a while, and they’re good at it. I know esports is becoming an entity where you have people watching esports on TV and online, and parents tell me their kids will watch videos of other people playing these games online, so I know it’s there. It’s popular across the country and we’re trying to stake our claim to it in the MetroWest.”

The league is split into an elementary (grades 3-5) and a middle and high school (grades 6-12) division, with players needing to possess the console the league is playing on, the game itself, an internet connection and accounts with both the console’s internet network (like The Playstation Network) and the company through which Park & Recreation is running the tournament.

But if you assume the league was created because COVID-19 killed off all Park & Rec's other activities and they were left scrambling to come up with something to do, you’d be wrong. In fact, as Ryder explained, they are still running a ton of fall programs and had been looking to add an esports league well before the pandemic.

“We’re running programs and activities right now that we usually run during the fall. There are obviously precautions we take because of COVID, but we’re running our soccer programs on Saturday, and we’re running our programs during the week. We’re just as busy as we’ve ever been in the fall. This is just an activity we looked at to see if we could reach and bring in some of the other kids that maybe aren’t doing some of the other activities we’re offering. Is it something we could do to reach the older kids who maybe we don’t have that much out there right now for them? This had nothing to do with COVID or anything, this just felt like the right time. We weren’t going to offer it at the very beginning of the shutdowns and quarantine. A lot of these places just weren’t operating at full capacity. We were really busy over the summer with our camps, and once the summer was over with us, it became a discussion I started having with Mark in Dover about maybe starting something up, and the discussion kind of rolled on from there.”

While kids can play video games against random opponents at any time, the league provides both the safety of knowing kids are playing against kids, and the added fun of knowing (like any other sporting league you’d play in) that you’re competing against kids like you.

“That was part of our thinking behind it - that rather than playing some random person from Portland, Oregon, you’re potentially playing your next-door neighbor, a friend from school, or someone from a neighboring town. So these kids would, in a normal circumstance, be playing youth soccer against Medway or youth basketball against Norwood. Here they are participating in an esports league against those towns, too. I think that’s definitely an attractive aspect to it - that you’re playing not just the neighboring towns, but classmates and kids you go to school with.”

Ryder noted that Fortnite is the biggest league, likely because it can be played on many different platforms.

If you missed the fall league’s signup, there is going to be another season in January (the fall league wraps up in early December). While esports champions are earning millions of dollars from tournaments and sponsors, and kids are dropping out of high school after becoming well-known video game streamers, the eSports MetroWest League isn’t quite at that level just yet. What’s the grand prize for being crowned the best Fortnite player in Medfield, Dover, Norwood and Medway?

“Bragging rights.”

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