Esports Provide Connection and Competition for Students During COVID-19

Playing pick-up games at the Health and Recreation Complex (HRC). Tossing a Frisbee or football on the quad outside Jordan Hall. Donning a jersey and lining up on the intramural fields.

As the month of March arrived on the Butler University campus and students planned to return from spring break, images like these filled hopes for the second half of the semester. But then the COVID-19 pandemic adjusted daily life in almost every corner of the world, and these moments never came to be. Instead, students transitioned to virtual instruction with the closing of classrooms and campus housing facilities.

Lost amid the pandemic were not only many of those opportunities to relieve stress through competition, but also those opportunities to connect with classmates through recreation.

But one way that some members of the Butler community have been able to remain connected is through esports, a growing activity on Butler’s campus.

Junior Luke Renchik is president of Butler’s esports club, and he’s also a member of Butler’s varsity esports team, which competes against other BIG EAST universities.

“It’s been really nice to feel a part of Butler while I’m physically away from campus,” says Renchik, who returned home to Michigan during the pandemic. “It’s been a good social outlet while I’m isolated.”

When Renchik notices that one of the club’s 90 members is online, he often joins them for a game. It allows him to chat with friends even when they can’t be together in person.

Butler’s varsity team began competing against BIG EAST universities in the spring of 2018. Butler’s team helped organize similar groups on other BIG EAST campuses to launch formal championships in several titles, including League of Legends and Rocket League.

The second half of the BIG EAST League of Legends season was adjusted due to the pandemic, but it was still played, and the spring BIG EAST Rocket League season continued without a hitch.

Normally, Butler’s 12 varsity players would gather to compete in the new Esports and Gaming Center in Atherton Union. Instead, Butler’s team members each play from their respective homes, but they are still connected.

“It was definitely different,” says Renchik. “We missed the energy, not all being in the same room, but we were able to exist as a team when so many other sports and teams didn’t have an opportunity to finish their season.”

Bailey Finocchio is Butler’s Assistant Director of Recreation & Wellness, Club Sports. Many of her responsibilities revolve around providing intramural sports opportunities for Butler students. During the fall semester, nearly 600 students participated in intramural sports. With students scheduled to return from spring break, another season of competition was about to begin full-throttle.

Basketball pool play had concluded, and the tournament bracket was set. Soccer, softball, badminton, lawn games, and more were set to begin. And then… students didn’t return to campus.

Finocchio had previously discussed the implementation of esports championships into intramurals with Eric Kammeyer, Butler’s Director of Esports and Gaming Technology. With the pandemic taking away so many other opportunities, it seemed like the right time.

“We knew that traditional programming wasn’t going to work, so we turned to esports,” said Finocchio. “We were already looking at options for esports to be included in intramurals, maybe a tournament over a weekend. But the pandemic allowed us to launch something more.”

Thirty-two participants signed up to play in three separate leagues: Rocket League, FIFA 20, and NBA2K 20. Three-week leagues were run simultaneously, with top performers feeding into playoffs.

“Most of the participants had previously participated in our traditional programming,” said Finocchio. “We were able to provide them with an outlet to still compete and interact with their classmates. It is something that we will look to continue as part of our intramural offerings.”

Senior Zach Sterrett was one of the students who made the transition from the traditional field to the e-field. Sterrett is a member of Butler’s club soccer team, which plays against club teams from other universities. While their season predominantly takes place in the fall, the portion of the calendar after spring break is normally filled with weekly practices and several matches against regional opponents. When his season was unexpectedly canceled, Sterrett took advantage of the opportunity provided by intramural esports.

“The intramural esports league gave me a chance to stay in touch with soccer and a way to show my competitive spirit,” says Sterrett. “When our games and practices were taken away, this was still a way to play soccer. It was a different outlet, and a lot of fun.”