For kids cooped up during the COVID-19 pandemic, online video games have become a way to compete, socialize, and decompress from the rigors of Zoom classes.
Like much else about the Internet, however, online gaming also carries potential hazards -- from stranger danger to online bullying.
To create a safe space for gaming, a growing number of local recreation departments have started their own esports leagues.
Many kids play video games “no matter what,” said Mark Ghiloni, director of the Dover Recreation Department. “So we looked at it as ... let’s see how we can be a value.”
Esports refers to the competitive playing of online games from the omnipresent battle royale Fortnite to the perennially popular Super Smash Brothers fighter, and even games based on physical sports such as FIFA or Madden NFL.
Ghiloni’s department first considered starting a local esports league well before the pandemic. After two failed attempts, he reached out to Medway, Medfield, and Norwood, and soon, the MetroWest Esports League began planning its first season in January 2020, with a launch that coincided with the early days of the pandemic. The league has since added Holliston, Franklin, Millis, Ashland and Natick.
“We didn’t have a ton of people wanting to jump on board initially, but we took the plunge the four of us.” Ghiloni said “Then, obviously it grew and now we’re up to record nine or 10 towns within Metro West. It’s kind of grown and evolved.”
The MetroWest League offers five games: Fortnite, FIFA 21, NBA 2K 21, Madden NFL 21, and Super Smash Brothers.
The league is popular with both participants and their parents, according to Medway recreation director Julie Harrington.
“I think they’re liking the fact that their kids are socializing and in a safe avenue,” Harrington said “They can talk to their opponents, there’s [a moderator] there to make sure it’s appropriate talk and it doesn’t get out of control. They can make friends in other towns and it’s all in a safe atmosphere. The kids are 99 percent of the time playing Fortnite on their own. Why not, you know, play someone and try to win the league? They always thrive on the competition aspect, right?”
The MetroWest league inspired several others in Massachusetts, including the Central Massachusetts Esports League, which consists of seven towns and is in its inaugural season.
Dan Hannon, assistant director of recreation for the town of Hudson in the Central Massachusetts league, emphasized that the program benefits children by giving them a way to connect safely.
“This league is geared towards my son and his friends, and they know how to do all these games in their sleep with their eyes closed.”
Both the Metro West and Central Massachusetts leagues use a third-party company called GG Leagues to organize matches and supervise kids while they’re playing. The Chicago-based company runs five Massachusetts-based leagues, including ones in Middlesex and the North and South Shores.
Erich Bao, one of GG Leagues’ co-founders, said the company was founded by gamers and for gamers. He believes that esports will become more popular even beyond the COVID-19 pandemic as video games become a larger part of more people’s lives.
“We’re not talking this is like 10 kids that are playing,” Bao said “Our current season has thousands of players playing in it. ... It’s been really, really amazing to see how receptive the communities are to this, and how much fun they’re having throughout this process.”
The GG Leagues system initially started as a simple match organizer for local games, but works to facilitate local connections through video games.
“We’ve seen people that are like ‘Hey, you want to be friends after this?’” Kevin O’Brien, co-founder and COO said. “I think that’s the coolest thing. We never really thought of ourselves as being a super social platform; we thought of ourselves as being like an organizer of events. But it’s really turned into this more social aspect that really drives community for these kids.”
Manraaj Singh is one such 14-year-old participant from Hudson who found a chance to hone his skills and meet new people despite the social restrictions that come with online classes during the pandemic.
“I had no idea there were so many good players, in my town alone, I got to play against them,” Manraaj said, “That made me better because like, I got a break out of my little friend bubble.”
Manraaj competes in the battle royale game Fortnite, since it’s the only cross-platform game the Central Massachusetts league offers and he doesn’t have a PlayStation and didn’t want to play Super Smash Brothers. Manraaj made it through the six-week regular season and is now in the playoffs at the end of the season.
Through these matches, other league players have impacted Manraaj’s play and shown him new tricks such as where on the battle map to start the game. Before and after the moderated games, Manraaj and his competitors often play casual games against each other to continue practicing.
“Before each game, I usually like to add them and then we play a little bit, I get to know them,” Manraaj said, “Then we go into the games, and I keep them as friends. Sometimes I even call them later.”
Manraaj’s father, Harvinder Singh, agrees that the league has been a positive experience for his son.
“Normally, we don’t prefer he plays over the weekdays,” Harvinder said, noting that his son would usually play on a Friday or Saturday night with close friends.
“But this was like a very like a positive 45 minutes every Tuesday. So it went well,” Harvinder said. “He can play with different people. It’s a change for him with this coronavirus going on. He loves to play tennis and basketball. So until we get that this was good.”
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