For the past month, the athletic fields at Columbia Sports Fieldhouse have been mostly empty in the evenings.
Even on those nights with only a few athletes inside, the building still serves as a hotbed of competition; it is the venue for the weekly Super Smash Bros. eSports tournaments. from the city.
The online video game tournaments are hosted by Tai Fletcher, a Columbia Parks and Recreation employee who has served as the city’s esports administrator since March.
“My job didn’t exist before I took it,” Fletcher said. “(Columbia Parks and Recreation) was interested in having an eSports league. … They wanted to connect as directly as possible with the community and have a subject matter expert at their fingertips.
Fletcher’s role as an eSports administrator functions as an internship. He is able to earn final credits for a degree in hospitality management at Northwestern State University in Louisiana, where he is taking courses.
The eSports administrator position is filed under the sports arm of Columbia Parks and Recreation, which is overseen by sports programming supervisor Joey Wilmes.
Wilmes is responsible for managing Columbia’s operations for all outdoor and indoor sports, but he said he’s learned a lot about the value of eSports events by seeing the community’s enthusiasm for them.
“I would say it was absolutely insane to see the amount of money being spent on people being able to play esports,” Wilmes said. “People can play video games professionally and kids get college scholarships to play eSports.”
“There’s not just the social aspect of being in a group and interacting with other kids, but there’s also a lot of hand-eye coordination with video games. There are a lot of experiences real world, just like in (traditional) sports.”
The city’s decision to create activities specifically for video games comes after increased interest in locally established college eSports programs, including the launch of MU’s eSports program in 2019.
During the upcoming fall semester, MU will award a $1,000 scholarship to more than a dozen qualified players of popular gaming titles, encouraging these potential athletes and players to enroll in its program and participate in national tournaments.
Additionally, other parks and recreation departments across the country have begun to notice and invest in esports.
Nationally, organizations such as the National Recreation and Park Association have actively encouraged cities to support and maintain community interest through avenues such as esports.
In Colombia, Wilmes said a lot of that positive culture shift toward esports changed when the department hired Fletcher.
“(Fletcher) has done a great job so far, and I think he aspires to continue working here even after his internship,” Wilmes said. “He and I had a lot of meetings back and forth. I’ve tried to do it (myself) before and haven’t really been able to get it off the ground.
Conversations about how the eSports administrator role might change or grow as Fletcher evolves into a true full-time city employee role leave him excited and optimistic about the future of eSports event coordination for Columbia.
“If nothing else, I always know I can match the passion I have for that feeling,” Fletcher said.
“I really love doing this stuff. And I always hope, whether I’m in costume or in a game environment, that they can feel that. Because when you can tell someone is passionate about something thing, you have a higher reason to want to lean into that,” he said.