The good-natured rivalry and camaraderie found in esports has created a new community for some Fayetteville residents and UA students.
Roughly half of Americans play video games either casually or professionally, according to the Pew Research Center. A rise in gaming popularity has created a new market —in recent years, esports have expanded to television broadcasting and collegiate-level sports programs. Esport audiences increased by an estimated 52 million since 2019, according to Newzoo, rapidly expanding the digital sport’s reach online.
With a rising demand for online gaming, The GRID esports became the premier gaming center in Fayetteville after it was founded by GMS Esports Enterprises, an entertainment based marketing firm. Since its October 2020 launch, the center has offered computers and consoles, a variety of games and a tournament stage where local teams compete for prizes.
The GRID was created to give gamers in Northwest Arkansas access to opportunities they can not get at home, said Drake Welch, marketing coordinator at the GRID.
“There is a big difference between playing football in your backyard with your three friends and going to high school and playing varsity football,” Welch said. “It’s the same thing with video games.”
The esports community has grown in recent years, and there are more people addressing it in mainstream media, Welch said.
“We have seen a huge rise, not just in the gaming culture where we see hundreds of thousands of people view it on Twitch.tv, but we see it more mainstream now with people saying, ‘Okay, this is a real thing,’” Welch said.
Televising esports has become more common in recent years, Welch said. ESPN has aired NBA2K basketball games and the League of Legends championship, and in the height of COVID-19, esports continued while other sports were put on pause, he said.
There is greater respect surrounding esports after it started showing up in the media, said Thomas Lunsford, sophomore UARK Esports member.
“People give a little more validity to the experience when they see that people can make a living (from esports),” Lunsford said. “Through that, people are kind of understanding there is a little bit of skill.”
Many colleges offer on-campus esport teams that compete at the national level. More than 170 schools are members of the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), including Arkansas State University, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Missouri.
A group of student gamers established an esports team at the UofA in November 2018. The UA Esports team is not currently a member of NACE.
Payton Tucker, a graduate student and former UARK Esports player, manager and coach, said he has been playing video games since he was a kid.
“In the past, it was really an awkward or weird thing to say that you play video games,” Tucker said. “Now that you see esports and people are coming out saying that they play video games on a competitive level, it’s just educating those who don’t know exactly what it is and how cool it can be.”
The GRID team is also working to build an inviting community for gamers who do not compete, Welch said.
“We are all gamers,” Welch said. “That is our slogan at the door. We try to be inclusive to everyone, and that means having events all the time that people can play in, not just the competitive people.”
The company has worked hard to create a safe outlet for people in the midst of COVID-19, Welch said. Masks are required at the gaming stations, visitors are spaced one seat apart and a UV light system was installed to kill viruses and bacteria, he said
Despite the pandemic, more than 1,000 people have visited the center since the launch, and the staff are anticipating more growth soon, Welch said.
Video games are a form of escapism for people who play and watch, Lunsford said. Twitch, a live streaming service prominent in the gaming community, saw an 89% increase in viewership in 2020 amid the pandemic, according to StreamElements.
“You can do things that you can’t do in real life,” Lunsford said. “You can be someone that you can’t be in real life. It’s fun to kind of escape boring life or stressful life, and you can just play video games and relax.”
For those who do not want to game in person, The GRID has a personal Discord, a digital messaging platform, where gamers in the community meet up online to chat and hang out.
Video games are a way for people to make friends and have fun, even just online, Tucker said.
“It’s hard being a kid,” Welch said. “It’s hard being a college student. You need an escape somewhere.”