Over the past couple of years, esports has continued to make headway garnering respect in arenas which had previously considered gaming to be a niche hobby. From the world of varsity athletics to sports news coverage, esports has proven again and again that it is worthy of the same consideration institutions offer traditional sporting activities. With the recent launch of its first official gaming event just a couple of weeks ago, an NBA 2K21 tournament, the Chicago Park District looks to be offering just such consideration to esports.
Generally speaking, parks districts are primarily concerned with managing public park and recreational resources. They handle event planning and facilities management. The very phrase “Parks and Recreation” immediately brings to mind outdoor, physical activities (at least, following any initial mental associations with the popular NBC sitcom of the same name). As such, the Chicago Park Districts’ virtual NBA 2k21 came as a surprise to many. Yet, as with most things in the time of COVID-19, unforeseen adjustments have become necessary.
In an article from The Chicago Tribune, the districts’ athletics manager, Adrian Loza, was able to find opportunity in the limitations presented by COVID-19 related safety measures. Loza told the Tribune: “The pandemic presented us with [the need] to get innovative… Esports is big, it’s growing. There was a little pushback but the pandemic helped us say, ‘This is a way we can engage [with young people], let’s go for it.’” The attempt to ‘engage’ with younger demographics would appear to pay off, with the December event drawing 64 teenage participants.
Considering this is the first event of its kind for the park district, the intricacies and logistics of organizing an esports tournament aren’t things Loza’s team could be expected to have much experience with. Fortunately, one Chicagoan with just such experience was able to come on board to make the event happen. That Chicagoan: Kevin Fair, esports consultant and owner of staffing and equipment company, I Play Games!
Through his company, Fair was able to organize the tournament, taking into account the event’s virtual nature and important issues of socio-economic accessibility. The Chicago Park District manages resources and events that are intended to be accessible to the entire population of Chicago. As a city, Chicago has a long track record of segregation, gentrification and income equality with many communities of color dealing with a lack of resources afforded to neighborhoods with more affluent demographics. Such factors impacted Fair’s organizational efforts, even in terms of choosing the game central to the tournament. While some games that are often featured in virtual tournaments, like League of Legends and Overwatch, are easily accessible to some, the fact that they require high-speed internet and expensive PC’s is an issue. As Fair tells the Tribune, “It definitely does leave a glaring difference between what one kid in the Auburn Gresham area can play versus someone in the Lincoln Park area… There will be kids who just do not have access to those games because they don’t have a high-end computer.”
By choosing NBA 2K21, players were able to participate remotely using their respective PlayStation and Xbox consoles. According to the Tribune “The tournament operated under a best-of-three format… was streamed over the Twitch platform: Fair provided the commentary.” Winners for both PlayStation and Xbox were declared with Fair committing to send them t-shirts and plaques to the champions. “It was nice because what we could see is that some of these kids who are just having fun could be diamonds in the rough,” Fair said.
Overall, it would seem that the Chicago Park Districts foray into esports events was a success. Loza is looking to incorporate more such events in the future with Fair likely continuing to stay involved. In fact, Fair has mentioned potentially organizing a Madden event, pivoting from virtual basketball to virtual football. If and when COVID-19 no longer prevents people from coming together in physical spaces, Fair is interested in making the tournaments in-person, allowing participants to make use of the Park Districts resources and “state-of-the-art equipment.” Chicago is one of the largest cities in the country. Now that their park district has taken the step of incorporating esports events into their programming, who’s to say what city might follow the Chi’s lead.