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CYC Sports will debut esports league in the spring; competitive online gaming has grown in popularity since pandemic

Competitive online play has opportunity for moments of fellowship, evangelization

When sporting competitions came to a halt at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago, young people began looking for other ways to connect with their peers, such as competitive online gaming.

Jason Byrne of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Oakville saw his kids playing online games like Rocket League — described as “soccer, but with rocket-powered cars” — with their friends. He approached associate pastor Father George Staley about turning their gaming into a parish-based league.

“I wanted (the kids) to stay connected and compete,” Byrne said. “I also have a son who is not really into sports, and it was exciting that he found a niche to interact with friends and compete.”

Meanwhile, staff at the archdiocesan Catholic Youth Apostolate’s CYC Sports program were discussing the explosive growth of esports within the gaming world. Esports traces back to the 1970s, with a video game tournament held at Stanford University in 1972 featuring the sci-fi rocket combat game Spacewar. By the early 2000s, esports began gaining popularity in mainstream culture. The pandemic drove an explosive growth in the gaming world, as young people were finding ways to stay connected with one another virtually.

CYC Sports recently announced it will offer its first esports league in April for sixth through eighth graders. In a recent survey to parish athletic association presidents, there was a significant interest in esports, said Tom O’Donnell, coordinator of CYC Sports.

Esports is another way to connect kids with parishes and the Church at large, while offering a safe venue for kids to play competitively online, O’Donnell said. CYC is partnering with Generation Esports, a Kansas City, Missouri-based company that offers a structured online platform for schools, businesses and clubs to organize competitions.

O’Donnell said this also fits in with the CYC’s mission of building communities of faith through sports, finding ways of bringing Catholic values to competitive play and seeing these organized activities as ministry opportunities.

That approach was attractive to Father Staley, who initially was skeptical but later supported the formation of an esports team at St. Francis of Assisi. While recognizing the need for appropriate measures when it comes to playing video games, the priest — who grew up playing games on the Nintendo Gameboy and PlayStation — said it’s a great way to reach kids through something that is popular within the culture and a chance for fellowship within the context of faith.

“The research is divided on the psychological effects of video games; a lot of it depends on the person, but it’s not inherently an evil or bad thing” depending on the type of game being played, Father Staley said. “I asked the question: Is this an opportunity for growth in virtue, and are we somehow growing in closer relationship with the Lord?”

They also needed to figure out how to keep game play safe and appropriate for children, so Byrne consulted with the archdiocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection and archdiocesan legal counsel for guidance. He recommended Rocket League — which has an “E” rating, meaning it’s appropriate for all ages. There also was a secondary motivation: “That also gave us the opportunity to distract kids away from some of the more violent games out there,” he said.

St. Francis of Assisi’s team currently has about 15-20 active players who compete against one another in one-on-one play, using their own devices at home. Byrne said they’re looking forward to joining the CYC league in the spring and hope they’ll eventually be able to meet in a public place for competitions.

That’s where he and Father Staley believe those moments of fellowship will make way for moments of evangelization.

“We want coaches who are living the faith to bring that into the conversation,” Father Staley said. “Maybe that looks something like having conversations before or after the competition where we’re building faith and connections are being made. We don’t want to stay horizontal with this, but bring a vertical element into it.”

Father Staley also said he looks forward to becoming more involved with the team once they’re meeting in person. “I am very rusty with video games, and I will probably get my butt kicked,” he joked. “But I love that they’re doing this and think it’s been a lot of fun.”

>> CYC Esports program

• Esports debuts this spring and is open to boys and girls in grades six through eight.

• The regular season will be eight weeks long, starting April 4. There will be two weeks of playoffs in early June. Teams will be created by parish; the CYC community will play on Mondays at 4 and 7 p.m.

• Players will be playing Rocket League, which is described as playing “soccer with cars.” The game is based on teamwork and outmaneuvering opponents. Rocket League is rated E — for Everyone — by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).

• Cost is $30 per player and the game is free to download. Registration will be located on each district’s Team Sideline page. Registration is open from Feb. 28-March 18.

• For more information and other frequently asked questions, see https://stlreview.com/3gOX5rR

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