The Roper YMCA is bringing a new esports program to the community.
Come this fall, children will have the opportunity to engage in the virtual and in-person competitive program led by Jessica Fernandez, youth development director at the Roper YMCA.
The program will allow children the opportunity to come together and enjoy playing video games as a team or individually in a positive, safe and inclusive environment.
The YMCA esports program will help participants develop their communication, collaboration and critical-thinking skills — all while having a blast.
In addition, children will learn about teamwork, online safety, leadership, equity focus and individual growth.
Chris Demetriou, who runs the centralized sports programs for the association, believes the esports program is a beneficial addition to the YMCA community because socialization, teamwork and character building are critical components for the development of the youth in the community.
“Esports provides an additional avenue for youth to learn, grow and thrive outside of traditional sports,” Demetriou said. “The Y is here for all, and we are excited to continue to provide a safe space for our youth during out-of-school time. … We cannot wait to see the friendships that are built through common interests. The chance to connect on several different platforms with YMCA youth across the country is an incredible opportunity.”
Fernandez said she was shocked at the immense community esports houses.
As of 2023, there are 532.1 million esports audiences worldwide, according to Demand Sage.
The esports market is valued currently at about $1.44 billion and is set to reach about $5.48 billion by the year 2029.
Fernandez said many of her teens expressed interest in esports and approached her asking about a possible program.
Demand Sage reports more than 60% of esports fans are between ages 16 and 35.
Fernandez has been in contact with a few other YMCAs in different associations who offer esports, such as in Texas and Atlanta, to figure out what works and doesn’t work, although the programs are also new and only started about a year ago.
Fernandez also connected with the Orlando Magic, which has an esports league, to learn more about the adult opportunities for children as they get older.
“I wanted to have this here at the Y, because it’s important to build those relationships with the kids that are socially awkward or always the last one to be picked when playing a group sport,” Fernandez said. “This doesn’t require any physical skills. This is where you can build on your skills and learn lessons that you can take with you in the future.”
The new offering has now been in the works since February, and Fernandez has been working hard to get the pilot program up and running with the help of esports coach Kamron Crawford.
Crawford grew up attending the Roper YMCA and has been involved with esports since he was 10 years old. He played for the University of Central Florida’s League of Legends esports team up until last year.
“I was immediately all in,” Crawford said. “I guess the thought of bringing my personal passion to kids and showing them all the opportunities esports could have for them socially, academically and also career wise really sparked my interest and I haven’t looked back since.”
Crawford shares his knowledge with Fernandez while also teaching the children skills. He leads the group in hand stretches, exercises and team-building activities.
“I feel like what makes this program special is the fact that we’re teaching young kids and teenagers the healthy way to play video games and compete, but also (we are) incorporating that into a program that can teach them how to play their favorite games at a very high level and maintain the fun and enjoyment that kids should have while playing video games,” he said. “I also believe that one of the most important things this program will do is teach not only the kids but the parents about the potential of esports and video games as a pathway to success for their children instead of just a ‘waste of time’ hobby.”
Children ages 8 to 17 will be able to participate in the program.
The 8- to 12-year-olds will start off playing Rocket League, a vehicular soccer video game, while the 13- to 17-year-olds will play NBA 2K, a series of basketball sports simulation video games.
The older age group will have the opportunity to also play Rocket League, but in a different bracket.
Fernandez said she hopes to add more games in the future, although only non-violent video games will be available.
The program can hold up to 32 players for the season, which is six weeks. There will be one practice and one game per week.
Per-season, the rate for members is $35, while the rate for non-members is $70.
Fernandez and Crawford currently are working to design uniforms for the teams.
To promote the new program, the Roper YMCA is hosting an upcoming esports tournament at the end of July.
The featured game will be NBA 2K23. Players ages 12 to 17 can participate, and sign-ups are available for individuals or teams. The event is free and open to the community, and winners will receive prizes.
Although the esports program is currently only available to select YMCA locations, Fernandez said she hopes to grow the program and spread it so the locations can play against one another.
“I never want anyone to feel left out,” she said. “My hope is that every kid knows they have a place here.”