When Nicole Walsh, 19, throws the discus or javelin for Illinois Wesleyan University’s track and field team, anxieties tug at her mind that she could be exposing herself to Covid-19.
But those worries dissipate when she plays for a different team at the school — the esports team.
“With throwing, I share implements. So I’m using the same shot that my teammate might use or the same javelin or discus, so with that it’s constantly in your mind that if one of us has it we are all kind of sharing these implements,” Walsh said of the coronavirus. “But with esports, it’s a little different.”
Over the last year, as traditional sports have struggled under the pandemic, esports have brought peace of mind to people like Walsh, who straddle both worlds.
“It’s still a concern, but you can do it remotely and that’s one of the benefits,” said Walsh, a computer science major, adding that being able to compete remotely was a big reason “esports is coming up during a pandemic.”
While some physical contact sports have struggled to find ways to keep players safe nearly a year after the pandemic forced much of the United States into lockdown, collegiate esports has thrived, with a new influx of players and spectators, according to those who study and play them.
In 2017, there were an estimated 50 varsity esports teams, according to the Associated Press. Today, there are more than 170 schools and more than 5,000 students who are members of the National Association of Collegiate Esports.
“We actually never stopped. The only thing that changed is we’re online more,” said Ray Pastore, an associate professor of instructional technology and esports at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “We were already practicing online, and doing things like that was nothing new for us. It was just, ‘Hey, this is where we are permanently for the time being.’”
In the initial months after the lockdown, Twitch, the video game streaming platform, posted a huge increase in viewership. Last May, The Verge reported that Twitch’s viewership was up, with hours watched growing 50 percent from March to April and a 120 percent increase in viewership year-over-year. As of May, the platform was up to 1.645 billion hours per month.
And, according to Pastore, that increase in viewership has persisted months later.
Streams on Twitch picked up significantly around April 2020, Pastore said, at 30 to 50 percent, and that growth has continued into 2021. In an email, a Twitch spokesperson told NBC News that “Twitch experienced double digits hours watched growth for esports since March 2020.”
Experts credit some of that sharp rise in viewership to consistency — esports is one of the few genres of entertainment that has remained largely unchanged in the pandemic.
“Streaming really became the one live thing that was really happening while everyone was in lockdown,” Pastore said.
Reyn Kiyota, 18, has been playing Rocket League, a soccer-like video game that uses vehicles to score goals, since he was in high school, but during the pandemic, it began consuming more of his time.
“I never saw myself in esports as a kid,” Kiyota, a business major at Illinois Wesleyan, said. “When senior year rolled around, Covid hit. I had nothing better to do so I sat at home and continued playing Rocket League.”
As Kiyota honed his skills, Callum Fletcher, 29, director of esports at Illinois Wesleyan, reached out to ask Kiyota if he had any interest in playing the game competitively for the school.
“I took a shot and now I’m here, and I’m never going to regret that decision,” Kiyota said.
Although college sports have slowly been making their way back to normality, the process has been challenging and often treacherous. In late 2020, ESPN reported that many traditional collegiate sports were still struggling to find safe ways to play and compete, citing canceled and postponed games, and teams moving to safer locations to avoid putting athletes at risk. In January, The New York Times reported that the season had “yielded more than 150 canceled or postponed games and thousands of positive cases.”
“Just like everything else that happened in society, we took for granted that we could just meet whenever we wanted to, so, just like traditional sports, esports labs and stadiums are empty,” Pastore said. “But unlike traditional sports, esports can take place at your house.”
Logan Brewer, 19, a computer science major at Illinois Wesleyan, said he’s also seen the growth of esports off-campus, recalling a recent trip home to New Orleans in which he met up with some friends at a bar.
“Up on the TV, they would always play traditional sports, football, baseball, whatever is in season,” Brewer said. “For the first time in my life, and I don’t know if this is nationwide or just my location, there was competitive Rocket League on the TV. That blew my mind.”
Brewer said he feels that long-term quarantining, which gave people time to discover new forms of entertainment, is most likely why esports has appeared to have gone mainstream during the pandemic.
“Covid has definitely accelerated the growth of the esports community,” he said.
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Pastore said that what Brewer experienced — going into a bar and seeing competitive esports being played on television — is the future. He said the catalyst for that is twofold. First is that children are growing up with video games and esports as a regular part of their entertainment diet and will normalize the medium even further as they mature into adulthood.
The other, Pastore said, is the immense acceleration esports has seen because of the pandemic.
“I think just as with every situation, certain industries thrive and others do not, and Covid, unfortunately, propelled us into five years ahead of where we would be in esports,” Pastore said. “We’re going to see a lot more of it as the next few years roll on.”