Earlier this month, Becker College in Worcester, Mass., hosted what could be the only kind of intercollegiate competition still underway in Massachusetts.
E-sports teams from Becker, UMass Amherst, Murray State University and Emerson College gathered — virtually — for Becker’s Spring Overwatch Invitational Tournament. Overwatch is one of the most popular team-based video games on the planet, and Becker was the first school in New England to establish a varsity e-sports program in 2018.
For Tim Loew, the general manager of Becker’s program, the tournament was about more than just the competition. “I think it was a good example of what collegiate e-sports brings to the table at this moment in time,” he said.
As sports have essentially shut down due to the coronavirus, e-sports and video games remain among the only outlets for competitive diversion left standing. Whether it's people playing at home or in more organized events online, e-sports are filling a vacuum for fans.
Loew said for those in collegiate e-sports, organized competition remains largely intact.
“What’s really changed is the fact that that big audience is starting to pay attention to what’s going on on the screens versus what’s going on on the courts or the fields," he said. "So it’s pretty exciting."
Even before the pandemic forced much of the world indoors, e-sports had already established itself as an entertainment mainstay. Over half a billion people are expected to watch e-sports by 2023. Thousands of people fill stadiums to watch championship matches on big screens. Celebrities from Robert Kraft to Michael Jordan have ownership stakes in e-sports teams. ESPN has dedicated increased television coverage to them.
Alan Ritacco, the dean of the School of Design and Technology at Becker, said he believes e-sports are at a pre-inflection point — the moment right before they're about to explode.
“This will be larger — maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe in 10 years — than the NFL," he said. "It will be larger because it’s a national-international audience base. It just crosses spectrum.”
Right now, e-sports and video games are helping people scratch their competitive itch. Some professional leagues sidelined by the coronavirus have gotten into the act. Major League Soccer is simulating its season on the soccer video game FIFA.
Instead of actual games, the NBA arranged for some of itsplayers go head-to-head on the basketball game NBA 2K in contests streamed live.
The matches were filled with trash talk and bravado, just like a NBA league game.
Ahmed Kasana, who plays for CLTX Gaming, the Boston Celtics' NBA 2K League team, admits the hoopers have virtual game as well.
“You see a lot of these guys that are amazing, amazing athletes — but they’re also great e-sport players," he said.
Kasana, who plays NBA 2K professionally, had been looking forward to the league's official start on March 24. Like so many other seasons, it got postponed, but the league still did smaller competitions online to keep fans engaged. There’s a possibility that the season will begin remotely.
“The great thing about our league is we can do that. We can play live in front of you on land, or we can play remotely from our homes," he said. "And that’s the great thing about being an e-sport. I feel like that’s why e-sports (are) growing.”
As the world struggles to deal with the wide-ranging impacts of coronavirus, Kasana almost views it as a duty to keep on playing.
“It is a tough time right now in the world, but you know, it’s our job and responsibility as a league to provide our fans with everything that is essential to being a great league, and that's providing them and giving them our best effort," he said. "Letting them know that we’re here and we’re going to still put on a show for you guys, whether it’s live or remote.”
Online video games have become a place for community when most social interactions have been restricted or forced to change. But will they continue to fill that role that once people can leave their homes again and congregate? Loew from Becker said he believes they will.
“There’s a game for everybody. Just like there’s music for everybody, there's a game for everybody out there," Loew said. "You can find a community that’s passionate about it. You’ll find friends. … And just because they’re folks who are online doesn’t make it any less valuable than a sort of physical proximity relationship that we can’t share right now.”
For traditional athletes, sports have been forced to be put on hold. For e-sports players, though, the games still go on.