WC eSports leagues foster human connections during pandemic

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NEW WILMINGTON, Pa.  (WC)– This spring semester is like nothing Alec Rich has ever seen.

Like many college students across the country, Rich was forced to say an early goodbye to classmates and professors this spring in response to the coronavirus pandemic. As he practices social distancing from his home in Trafford, Pa., the Westminster College junior accounting major sticks to a daily routine to help maintain his mental health: wake up, attend online classes, work out, spend time with his family, do homework and then…gaming.

For Rich, multiplayer gaming—using consoles like Xbox, PlayStation 4 or Nintendo Switch that offer in-game chatting—is his way to connect socially with his friends and combat feelings of isolation and loneliness during Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Playing video games with my friends has been everything for me,” said Rich, president of the college’s eSports Club. “The games give us a vessel for conversation. While we play, we talk about everything—not just the game.”

Social distancing does not have to mean total isolation from the world, Rich said, so in a collaborative effort between the eSports Club and Westminster’s Intramural Program, three student eSports leagues were launched this month.

League play for Call of Duty, Rocket League and Madden kicked off the week of April 13. Rich—in conjunction with Dr. Robert Zullo, coordinator for the Intramural Program and associate professor of business and sports management—is coordinating players, arranging weekly matchups, recording scores and will organize tournament play at the end of season.

“The whole goal behind the leagues is for Westminster students to stay connected during this time,” Rich said. “We want something that students can look forward to.”

Gaming has gotten the World Health Organization’s stamp of approval during the pandemic, suggesting that in today’s quarantined normal, gaming can boost users’ sense of well-being and relatedness.

“The idea of the social connection of gaming can only benefit someone in a time like this,” said Sarah Gellman, a counselor in Westminster College’s Wellness Center. “I think under the current circumstances, with social distancing and stay-at-home orders, any amount of reaching out that one needs to do is beneficial.”

Fellow Wellness Center counselor Melinda Wise agrees.

“Each person needs to stay connected in some manner that works for them,” Wise said, adding that for some it could be online gaming and for others it could be Google hangouts or Zoom parties.

Gellman also points out that these virtual relationships are our real “human” relationships right now—and maintaining those relationships is crucial.

“Given that humans are social beings, we need connection and closeness. So, setting intention with maintaining our friendships and connections, as we would with in-person gatherings, has to happen online,” Gellman said.

Aside from fostering connections in these socially distant days, Rich is hoping that the league play will introduce students to the concept of eSports and build a greater community of gamers at Westminster.

“This collaboration between the Intramural Program and the eSports Club—this is the ‘WE in Westminster’ in action,” Zullo said. “This allows for students to get back in touch with one another, engage with one another and find stress relief.”

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