eSports

Mystic Lake Casino Hotel hosts an eSports Tournament in 2018.

After the cancellation of much of its fall and winter programming, the Chanhassen Parks and Recreation Department is starting a new league — "esports."

The international industry has made its way to Chanhassen, where the city will partner with Blaze Fire Games to create multiple esports teams for ages 7 and up. Interested gamers can register online to play Super Mario Smash Bros, Rocket League, FIFA Soccer, NFL Madden Football or NBA2K with others in their area and age group to win prizes.

“It's a different world for us. We like to see you in person, on our fields, our facilities. But this is a great way to reach people with different skill sets and interests and provide remote activities during COVID-19,” said Recreation Center Manager Jodi Sarles.

WHAT IS ESPORTS?

Esports is a form of sport competition based around multiplayer video games. Professionals and casual gamers can participate in organized competitions as individuals or in a team, where they battle other players in video game genres such as multiplayer online battle arenas (like League of Legends), first-person shooters (Call of Duty) and battle royales (Fortnite).

The majority of esport competitions are based in Asia Pacific, but the sport is quickly growing in popularity across the globe — in 2019 alone, the sport generated $1.3 billion in revenue.

While there’s some negative stereotypes around gaming and screen time, modern video games can actually encourage social interaction and teamwork among all ages, explained Blaze Fire Games’ CEO Isiah Reese. Multiplayer games help kids stay connected with friends, which is particularly useful during COVID-19.

Playing professional esports can also lead to some major opportunities, Reese added. Just like “regular” sports, over 200 colleges and universities offer scholarships for esports, and several states have approved dual enrollment programs that allow K-12 students to play for credit.

Another unexpected positive? The anonymity of most video games levels the playing field — when all you see is a gamer tag (your name in-game), it doesn’t matter who is behind the screen, he said.

“It doesn’t matter how much money you have, what color you are, your gender, your age ... you’re part of a safe and secure community and can have fun,” Reese said.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Adults can sign their kids (or themselves) up for a team in their age range, then pick up to three of the five games — Super Mario Smash Bros, Rocket League, FIFA Soccer, NFL Madden Football and NBA2K — to play competitively. The games are not included in the $75 fee.

Players will participate in three competitions per week, per game for five weeks and can pick when they play. The flexibility ensures that kids won’t have to play at odd hours or during school times, Sarles said.

If someone loses a game, they’re not kicked out of the league — they can keep playing and hopefully build their confidence and skills, Reese said. However, the top players will be invited back for a sixth week playoff tournament. Prizes are still being finalized, but will include Blaze Fire merchandise and access to online esports courses.

Players also exclusively compete with those in their age group. If they want a more social aspect, they can voice-chat with other players using Twitch or Facebook Gaming. For safety reasons, the 7-13 age group will not have that option.

The asynchronous aspect was a major draw for Luke Thunberg, who signed up his 9-year-old son Graham after seeing the Parks and Recreation’s Facebook announcement. Graham’s normal summer and fall sports were called off, but playing Madden gives him a chance to compete again without , Luke said.

“We had seen (esports) on ESPN a few times and he was already a big Madden player, so he’s pretty excited. It’ll be interesting to watch him and see how it goes,” he said.

'WAVE OF THE FUTURE'

Blaze Fire Games’ presence in Chanhassen won’t start and end with this fall’s esports community. The global company, which is based in Chanhassen and named after Reese’s son’s gamer tag, has a bigger mission.

While they’ve hosted many tournaments before, one of the company’s goals is to show how esports can become a serious career. They offer courses on professional development in the field, summer camps and basic knowledge classes — access to their catalogue will be one of the prizes.

Depending on the success of this fall’s program, esports could also become a regular sport, operating within the Parks and Recreation budget to allow for the purchase of gaming computers and other necessary equipment, Sarles said.

If the partnership between Blaze Fire and Chanhassen is a good fit, Sarles and Reese hope to see esports catch on locally. Right now, anyone can enter the fall league, but if there’s enough interest, the groups will work together to create school and city teams that will compete in tournaments — just like any other sport.

“There’s so many different opportunities for kids these days, and we want to give them something that they truly enjoy at such an unusual time,” Sarles said. “They don’t have to risk any kind of exposure — it’s a great starting point.”

And the intentional Sept. 16 start date? “It’s back-to-school, back to gaming,” Reese laughed.

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