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On Second Thought

Even during a pandemic, the esports world rolls on

Esports player Jaime Bickford.
Esports player Jaime Bickford.Jaime Bickford

The esports world continues to grow and the games go on as scheduled, one of the few sectors of the almost universally disrupted sports industry able to plug along pretty much the way things were before the COVID-19 pandemic stripped the ball from our hands.

For instance, the Kraft-family-owned Boston Uprising, the Overwatch League (a.k.a. OWL) franchise founded in 2017, on Friday night played its 11th game of the 2020 season, a matchup vs. the Toronto Defiant.

Over at Northeastern, the Huskies just days ago joined the trend among US colleges and elevated esports to a varsity sport.

In Hingham, Jaime Bickford, one of the world’s few female professional esports competitors, spent much of the week lamenting her team’s loss last weekend in a Rocket League tournament.

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“Game 7, overtime, we lost by a goal,” recounted Bickford, 27, who began scratching out a living through esports soon after graduating from Hingham High in 2011. “I was crushed. But, hey, it happens, right?”

Ball fields and arenas are shuttered around North America, with the NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball praying they one day soon will get the “all clear” signal and get back to doing the business of games. Cities and towns across the continent have closed golf courses, reeled in tennis nets, and taken down basketball hoops.

No, sir, sports ain’t what they used to be. In fact, right now, sports mostly just ain’t.

Yet esports keeps on trucking because the coronavirus, as sinister and lethal as it has proven to be these recent months, has yet to show it can chew through the Internet. eSport athletes across the world still get up each morning and boot up their computers, sign into the next tournament, live-stream their games, post to YouTube or, like Bickford, grind through tedious practice session after tedious practice session ahead of the next game.

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“Usually, I average 80-90 hours practicing or playing over the course of every two weeks,” noted Bickford, who plays Rocket League under the name Karma. “It’s like a full-time job. It’s a lot of work.”

Fans cheered during the 2018 Overwatch League Grand Finals in London.
Fans cheered during the 2018 Overwatch League Grand Finals in London.Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Little did most of us sports traditionalists realize, many while looking askance as esports sprouted into a behemoth the last 5-10 years, that it would be the sports of the digital world that had more moxie, endurance, and resilience amid such historic times of trouble.

Right now, that geeky kid with nose pressed up against the screen, the computer mouse all but welded in hand, can keep on playing as if there is no tomorrow. Meanwhile, all the broad-shouldered, chiseled athletes of the world wonder if there will be a tomorrow.

Here in the time of social distancing and curve flattening, we’ve all been told to go home, lock the door, and stay there.

Suddenly, all the world’s a basement, and we’re just players in it. Most of us may think that’s dark, foreign, unsettling, and claustrophobic. To esporters, it’s just another day in the sunshine of their love.

“I have absolutely the best job you can have in the world,” acknowledged Bickford, who lives and works out of a basement apartment in her Hingham family home, her mother and grandmother living upstairs. “My whole family’s been saying that to me, like, 'Jaime, the funniest thing is, you have the best job in the world during this whole pandemic — everyone’s losing their jobs and you’re doing great.’ ”

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True now, as before, she also has no commute, no concerns about what germs might lurk on the hanging strap of a packed subway car, or if an asymptomatic teammate at the next desk is unwittingly spreading the virus. An esport athlete always has the home-field advantage, without a care in the world about the field.

“Yep,” Bickford said, “no change for me, honestly.”

Bickford plays for an esports organization based in North Carolina, the Charlotte Phoenix. It provides her base salary. She has two teammates, both male, one from Florida and the other from Texas. They sometimes meet up at arenas for big tournaments, but the pandemic has placed that part of the industry on hold. The games can still go on, and a player in Hingham doesn’t have to be mindful of 6-foot spacing when one teammate is operating out of a home in Fort Lauderdale and the other somewhere near Houston.

“Gee, I think he’s from Houston," mused Bickford. "To be honest, I’m not sure.”

By Bickford’s count, she is one of only some 10 women worldwide who play esports professionally. While the industry keeps growing, with teams offering larger salaries and tournament payouts bigger, it remains almost exclusively male.

“I am the only woman in Rocket League,” she said. “Sadly.”

It can be a misogynistic world, said Bickford, insults generated not by competitors but by the unremitting septic commentary that feeds in from the Internet. Female and male athletes in traditional sports often have trouble shielding the venom, while esport athletes play on a stage with social media attack dogs virtually woven into it.

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Bickford is not only the lone woman in Rocket League, she is the grand old dame in a field that allows players to enter as pros at age 15. For the faceless online attackers, that makes her a two-fer when it comes to ageist/sexist affronts.

“It’s a daunting task,” said Bickford, reflecting on a woman succeeding in a sport that remains very much a man’s world. “You’re going to get a lot of hate, a lot of negative things thrown your way … there’s a lot of sexism, because of people hiding behind a computer. Whether they mean it or not, they just type stupid things, and I just seem to be the focal point of any topic relating to my team, and it’s just because I’m a girl.

“It’s kind of like sports radio, except it’s directly at me. I just get hate on social media, or Reddit, or whatever.”

The esports world rolls along, isolated in the cocoon of the Internet, almost as if nothing in the world has changed. Even there, though, some viruses can’t be avoided.


Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.