Maricopa Esports League coach Jack Ngan (left) is among those involved in a groundbreaking parks and rec program that is city sponsored. (Photo and story by Warren Younger/Cronkite News)
Maricopa breaks ground with creation of city-sanctioned esports league
The rapid growth of esports may be best reflected in a recent decision by the City of Maricopa.
The city announced it is kicking off its inaugural season of recreational league esports, funded by taxpayer dollars and city-sanctioned. It is believed to be the first league of its kind in Arizona and one of the very first of its kind in the country.
Matthew Reiter, marketing coordinator for Maricopa and now esports director, said the city is always looking to innovate.
“We are a city known for doing things that are cutting edge,” Reiter said. “We not only want to be progressive, we want to bring in cool new things, and what we found was that esports is where it’s at.”
The recreational league, which is starting its first “beta season” in the coming weeks, will be hosted at the Copper Sky Recreation Complex in a dedicated room that is lined wall to wall with state-of-the-art gaming computers loaded up with all the latest esports titles that were all paid for by the city.
The growth of competitive video gaming is evident by the increased participation on college campuses and by the opportunities to view on platforms such as Twitch. The NHL’s Coyotes, in partnership with hockey teams at Grand Canyon and Arizona State, recently hosted an esports tournament in Scottsdale.
Communities are more engaged as well. In Indiana, for example, the St. Joseph County hotel-motel tax board approved $2 million from its bed tax collections to convert an underused theater into a 500-seat arena, the South Bend Tribune reported.
In Maricopa, Reiter said that backlash has been minimal and that support has been great for the program.
“The only backlash has been more questioning versus anything else,” Reiter said. “We did our research. We were ready for that fight.”
One of the things that raised questions related to fitness and nutrition that is vital in other sports. Reiter, who was the fitness coordinator for the city of Maricopa for 20 years before becoming the esports director, was ready for those questions.
“We have nutrition and fitness integrated in the league because we want our kids to be healthy physically and not only gamewise,” Reiter said.
“The Bulletproof Diet,” which has its origins in the technology mecca of Silicon Valley, will be pushed alongside additional incentives to participate in fitness that include a plan that will give participants more time in the game room if they hit the weight room, Reiter said.
“We want to relate gaming, nutrition and fitness to this league, and we want them to understand that it’s going to help their gaming,” Reiter said.
Travis Orian, who works for the City of Maricopa, has two sons competing in the first season of the Maricopa Esports League. As an old-school gamer himself, he is glad that his children can experience something like this.
“I have two sons that are competing in esports and both of them compete in regular sports, too,” Orian said. “I really see my kids enjoying esports.”
The Maricopa Esports league isn’t just for kids, either, with an adult division that Orian is also competing in, but not because he has a history of gaming. He said he joined at the encouragement of his kids.
“I was telling them I was too old for that, but they wanted me to compete,” Orian said. “It’s cool to be able to have your kids cheer you on. It’s something new and really exciting for me.”
Orian’s sons, Ezekiel, 11, and Degan, 9, play the same esports titles as their dad. The Maricopa Esports League in its beta season will have leagues for “Overwatch,” “Rocket League,” and “Super Smash Brothers Ultimate.”
Even though they are not playing against their dad in the league, Ezequiel and Deegan said they already know what would happen if they did.
“He thinks he is better than us, but we know we are better,” Ezekiel said.
Another concern was the financial aspect of the league including questions of cost of maintenance versus other sports. Nathan Ullyot, the community services director for the city, said the cost of keeping this league running should be cheaper than the other programs they offer.
“The way I look at it is that it costs us tens of thousands of dollars to maintain our soccer fields but if we replaced every computer in the room every year it would still be less expensive than the soccer fields,” Ullyot said.
Reiter agrees with Ullyot that not only are esports cheaper to run than other recreational sports, they have the potential to produce a profit.
“We have brought in about $10,000 in sponsors who are getting on board with it because they realize there is a need for this market,” Reiter said. “With our numbers we are probably going to cost recover in the first year.”
Ullyot said that with the initial success of the programs – almost every spot in the league’s beta season is sold out across all divisions – that this can lead to other great things for the city.
“From a business perspective, it’s our biggest opportunity to build income for other programs,” Ullyot said.
Maricopa might be the first city to implement a city-funded and sanctioned recreational esports program, but it certainly won’t be the last.
Larry Binion, the Parks and Recreational Manager for the City of Apache Junction, visited the Maricopa Esports League. Binion wasn’t a believer in esports originally but he is now.
“It’s hard to argue against the numbers in esports,” Binion said. “I’m very confident that we can get something going knowing that other cities have successfully implemented esports.”
“Esports is coming and I don’t want to get passed up.”
With Maricopa leading the way, Reiter wants other parks and recreation directors to know just how good esports will be for their city.
“I want anyone in rec to fight the good fight, talk to leadership, and do it,” Reiter said. “This is such an awesome thing and the overall response has been amazing, it’s definitely worth that battle.”