What do intramural sports look like in the wake of a devastating virus that feeds off of close bodily contact?

When UC Santa Barbara transitioned to remote learning in the spring, Department of Recreation Intramural Coordinator Gabe Escobedo and his team faced the unenviable task of answering this question — of finding a way to keep students involved without in-person intramural athletics.

Canceling IMs all together never crossed our minds,” Escobedo said. “We wanted to provide our students with safe, healthy alternatives to in-person sports.”

Enter Intramural ESports — a brand-new approach to traditional intramural sports that Escobedo and his team pioneered this spring. Born out of necessity, the Intramural team had only a few weeks to plan, organize and execute the concept.

Given the time constraints, Intramural ESports only featured three different games: Rocket League, FIFA 20 and NBA 2K20. With Rocket League, each participant had the option to play in a 1v1, 2v2 or 3v3 league. In each sport, players were grouped into different divisions based on their skill level.

Mikal de Wit — a Spring 2020 graduate and Recreation Center employee who helped Escobedo plan Intramural ESports — participated in all three variations of Rocket League and noted the enthusiasm from other participants.

“I was surprised at how many people had signed up; we had close to 100 people in just Rocket League,” de Wit said. “As a [Rocket League] player, I thought it was really cool to add something to the game and have something to play towards.”

In each division, de Wit played two series for a three-week period, with each series consisting of a best-two-out-of-three format. Between setting up the game with his opponent and breaks within the game, de Wit estimated that each Rocket League series took about half an hour.

After the regular season, players who qualified for the playoffs faced off in a best-of-five series, with a final best-of-seven series to determine the champion.

“In my experience, the games were competitive but very friendly,” de Wit said. “ The format was cool because you got to play against [playoff] opponents during the regular season, so in the finals, you already played them and you’re hoping to get the win this time around in the postseason.”

While it started as an emergency backup plan, the inaugural Intramural ESports featured hundreds of participants and allowed the Intramural program to engage with students who wouldn’t normally participate in intramural sports, according to Escobedo.

A large part of the Department of Recreation’s mission and values is being student-focused,” Escobedo said. “As long as our students continue to show that they’re substantially interested in ESports, Intramural will enjoy growing our ESports offerings.”

Indeed, Escobedo and the team are committed to expanding and improving upon their current ESports program. This summer, they are working with Francisco Rodriguez — the ESports and Outreach Officer for Gaucho Gaming — to create a much broader program for the fall.

“UCSB is one of the few UCs that’s lacked any school-backing Esports program,” Rodriguez said. “ Since I transferred [in 2018], I’ve been working on creating a program, and now that they see that ESports is extremely viable, we are having a series of meetings to create an ESports Program at UCSB.”

While the logistics of that program are yet to be determined, it seems clear that Intramural ESports will return in the fall with more game offerings for students to choose from. Despite a pre-COVID reluctance, the Intramural team seems to have embraced ESports— and, in some ways, embraced the future of sports and gaming.

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