First-of-its-kind esports room opens at West Philly rec center

From left: Daniel Legg (12), Bryheem Leach (13), and Matthew Douglass (12) play in the new Christy Rec Center

From left: Daniel Legg (12), Bryheem Leach (13), and Matthew Douglass (12) play in the new Christy Rec Center. (Robby Brod/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s first-ever esports room opens Friday.

In an effort to modernize the programs it offers and to reach more young people across the city, Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department created the space at Christy Rec Center.

The room in West Philly is outfitted with six flat screen TVs, nine gaming consoles with controllers (four Xbox, four PlayStation, one Nintendo Switch), 24 gaming headsets, and 20  custom gaming chairs, and two couches.

Officials said the equipment will also be incorporated into the rec center’s existing after-school programs.

“Esports is the fastest growing type of recreation in our country,” said Parks and Rec Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell. “We think of recreation as traditional sports like basketball, football, and soccer, and to be honest, not all kids are into that.”

Competitive video gaming is a rapidly expanding, multibillion dollar industry with millions of players across the world. Throughout the pandemic, Ott Lovell said interest in esports has skyrocketed.

“A lot of kids who are more introverted through the pandemic have begun gaming at a higher level, and some kids don’t have access to some of the equipment and platforms that are necessary to really experience that in a great way,” Ott Lovell said, adding that “teenagers especially, will now have a safe place for them to hang out together.”

The room is part of the city’s ongoing partnership with Philly-based esports company Nerd Street Gamers, whose goal is to get more young people involved in gaming and technology.

“The reality is this is about access to technology: In a time like COVID, where we sent kids home with laptops and found out that a very large percentage of the student base didn’t have broadband at home… There’s a really huge technology access gap,” said John Fazio, founder and CEO of Nerd Street, which helped fund the project, along with Five Below and the nonprofit Beyond the Badge Foundation.

Fazio said esports rooms, like the one at Christy, are more important now more than ever, as more jobs become increasingly technology driven and more colleges offer video game scholarships.

“We create opportunities with competitive pipelines that have sent kids to college. We’ve had dozens of kids who played in our tournaments get signed to professional careers. We’ve had dozens go into work on the back end of the industry as producers and event operators,” Fazio said.

The company’s goal is to foster a community of young people with shared interests in gaming and tech, while providing them with the center’s expensive technology.

The esports room is also part of Parks and Rec’s plan to help stem violence in the city. Gun violence levels, while recently decreasing, remain at historic highs.

“This is a program that we see can really have an impact on the lives of young people and keeping them safe and showing them that there are so many alternatives for them than pursuing a life of negativity,” Ott Lovell said.

Earlier this year, 16-year-old Kahree Simmons was shot and killed on the basketball court at Christy, located at 55th and Christian streets. Two other teens were wounded in the shooting.

“We really doubled down our efforts at Christy to make sure that we’re focusing on programs for teenagers,” Ott Lovell said, “and esports is just one way to help us do that.”

Ott Lovell said the esports room at Christy is only the beginning for the department, which plans to open more of them in the coming years, calling the room at Christy a “pilot program.”

Philly’s parks and rec officials hope the new center will also encourage kids to pursue careers in the rapidly expanding gaming industry, which has historically lacked diversity.

Fazio hopes the new esports room will bring more people from lower-income backgrounds into the video game and tech industries.

“The esports industry is skewed towards this affluent demographic, whereas gamers come from all demographics. It’s our goal to really open up all gamers to the esports industry and drive that level of diversity,” he said.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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