USF esports program levels up with increase in engagement

Since intramural sports were postponed due to COVID-19, the USF esports program now hosts competitions and drop-in events all week on Discord and Twitch to reach all those interested in participating, no matter their level of gaming experience. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Since its launch in March, USF’s esports program has become popular in the community after traditional intramural sports (IMs) were put on pause over coronavirus concerns — now, esports is bringing together current and prospective USF students as well as alumni.

USF Recreation and Wellness created its esports program in lieu of intramural sports as a way for students from all campuses — Tampa, St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee — to remain engaged and connected after all USF activities went virtual. 

“We’re really happy with how we’ve seen our engagement grow since all of this hit in March,” said Antonio Gonzalez, assistant director of intramural and club sports. “The transition has definitely been a challenge but we’re excited as to where we’re at now from where we began.”

The program originally hosted two events a week on Mondays and Wednesdays, but has had to adjust its schedule to host events every day of the week as a result of the high demand.

The esports program operates through two popular gaming platforms, Discord and Twitch. Discord operates as an interactive server for gamers to chat with each other, and Twitch is a livestreaming service on which users stream themselves playing games to live audiences.

These platforms may be unfamiliar to those who aren’t as well-versed in the gaming community, but Gonzalez said his team has been trying their best to encourage more engagement with esports events.

“We’re starting to see the barrier to participation significantly lower, so even if you’re not a big gaming person and you don’t have a whole lot of knowledge of Discord, we’ve tried to lower that barrier to participation and that barrier to entry, so that more and more students can have access to it,” said Gonzalez.

USF esports moderators have played a key role in encouraging participation by ensuring that USF’s online communities foster a welcoming environment to players at any skill level.

“Us [moderators], we try our best to make this a welcoming and safe environment for students, alumni, anyone that really wants to be a part of the community,” said senior computer science major Andres Greene, one of the esports moderators. “We just want to be as welcoming as possible so that’s something that we try our best to do.” 

Moderators were hired by USF Recreation and Wellness over the summer as participation began to increase. They come from a variety of backgrounds, with some being former supervisors for IMs and others with experience in gaming both casually and competitively. 

“I’ve been running [Super Smash Bros.] tournaments at USF and around Tampa for a long time,” said senior computer science student William Elia. “So [my friend] said ‘Hey this is something you should definitely look into to get involved,’ so I messaged [Gonzalez] about it and I got involved pretty quickly in being a [moderator].”

Ensuring that the virtual community remains a welcoming environment includes addressing negative behaviors and interactions.

“Their job is to go and work with the students to make sure that they are behaving,” said Gonzalez. “If they see that someone is doing something that probably isn’t what we want to see in our community, they can try to address it.”

While USF esports has installed a system of checks and balances to filter out toxic behavior before individuals enter Discord servers and Twitch chats, it’s still something that moderators need to look out for.  

“You have to be aware, since it is online,” said Greene. “A lot of the users here, they’re anonymous — you don’t have to connect your U-number or your actual name, so anyone can make an account, hop in and post whatever they want. So us as [moderators], we really have to be aware of that and if it does happen we have to delete whatever they posted and act accordingly.

“It’s definitely something we have to be ready for.”

While the accessibility and interactiveness of this platform can open routes for negativity, it has become more of a space to develop friendships between players in a time where meeting others is more difficult.

“For me, USF esports has been great for making connections and friends,” said junior and English major Olivia Schmidt, who also serves as a moderator. “I’ve always felt really comfortable in an online platform and an online space, so I’ve been able to cultivate a lot of meaningful friendships only a few months in.”

Events offered include competitions as well as “drop-in” events that are open to anyone without having to register beforehand. 

Many games students can drop in to replicate actual sports such as the soccer simulation game FIFA, football simulation game Madden NFL, and basketball simulation game NBA 2K. The esports program also hosts war-simulation games, including Call of Duty that are not drop in. 

“It’s a balance of engaging your probably more hardcore participants, the ones that just want to play their specific titles and they’re good at it, and they just want to engage in that small niche realm,” said Gonzalez. ”Versus expanding out to make sure from the other end that we’re making esports and gaming in general accessible to as many students on campus as possible.”

The USF esports program is looking to organize a FIFA tournament later this year that will engage other student organizations along with its individual participants and maintain a degree of competitive spirit that occurs naturally with USF IMs.

“We’re promoting a much larger FIFA event toward the end of the semester that we’re hoping to engage with our student organizations on, so it’s not just individuals playing each other,” said Gonzalez. “It’ll actually be teams of players that will be able to kind of compete like they would in the in-person setting, but virtually.”

The esports program continues to encourage the USF community to participate in all of its events, regardless of where someone is at in their gaming abilities. 

“A lot of our game nights you know, rank doesn’t matter. You can be one of the best players, or you could be someone just starting the game, it doesn’t matter to us,” said Greene. “We just want you to come and have some fun and meet some new people.”