How Gaming Has Helped Traditional Athletes And ESports Players Stay Connected

When Los Angeles Gladiators player Indy “Space” Halpern calls in you can’t actually hear him at first. Not because he’s shy or soft-spoken. No, it’s because his Gladiators teammates are still in the middle of practice scrimmages. They’re screaming over him their call outs for the action that’s happening on their screens. While much of the country is stuck social distancing, self quarantining, and interacting with very few people on a daily basis, Halpern is one of the lucky ones. His entire team has a house together.

“We’re all in a team house in North Hollywood,” Halpern said. “We’re all together quarantining. So we’ve been here for like three or four months now. Just kind of all together as a unit. We have literally everything we need we have a gym, a pool, a ping-pong table, a hot tub. It’s basically paradise for us for quarantine. So we’ve been good here.”

While in the world of eSports the idea of an entire team living together in a house is fairly normal it is something the rest of the sports world has been having to get used to. We’ve seen the NBA, NHL, WNBA, and MLS put teams into bubbles. All across sports, we’re witnessing social distancing through self-quarantine, and with isolation comes loneliness, particularly for athletes so accustomed to almost always having people around.

For those appropriately practicing social distancing, it has been months since they physically saw family members, loved ones, and friends. This virus has forced a lot of people into situations where they can’t see the people they care about most. It’s also forced us to get creative with ways to spend time with them. One way that many people in the world of eSports and even the NBA have been combating the feeling of being alone is through video games.

While there are other mediums that are meant to help us escape, like reading, watching TV/Movies, or listening to music, video games are by their very nature interactive. They are something you have to actively involve yourself in. This interactivity makes them perfect for playing with others, as the world of online gaming has exploded to include millions from around the world over the last decade. There are single players games out there that you can enjoy on an individual level, but few mediums can have direct interaction with other people the way video games can.

“I’ve never been big in single player games at all,” said Shane ‘Rawkus’ Flaherty of the Overwatch League’s Houston Outlaws. “I’ve probably never even played any single player games. Honestly, I’ve always been into either big MMO’s like World of Warcraft or FPS games. And even party games, (or) League of Legend type games. Those are the kind of games that I love. So I pretty much like a diversity of games just not single player because I like playing with other people.”

That ability to interact with others has helped turn video games into a savior for many people throughout this pandemic. When we aren’t allowed to see each other on a physical level and we crave the ability to be social we can do so through video games.

“When I hop on for Warzone I usually play with my fiancee and some of our friends,” said Justin ‘Silly’ Fargo a player for the Call of Duty League’s Minnesota RØKKR. “It’s pretty much the only time we get to spend together since we’re in different states so video games have been kinda keeping us spending some time together.”

Fargo isn’t the only person in the world that has been separated from people they care about due to this pandemic. J.R. Smith, now in the bubble for the Los Angeles Lakers, told UPROXX in June about not being able to see his family and friends because they were in New Jersey while he was training in Los Angeles when the lockdowns hit. Despite being in Los Angeles however he was still finding ways to game with his friends and keep that connectivity.

“Yeah man, it’s funny because for me it’s a blessing in disguise with all this staying at home and everybody being on games and stuff like that,” Smith said. “It’s like, all my friends are “back home in a tough neighborhood, and you know, when you go outside you can get in trouble and other things. So having my friends being online consistently has been huge for me.”

While Smith has been playing with friends from back home, fellow NBA player Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns has been challenging the rest of the NBA’s best in the gaming world. He told UPROXX that he’s the best gamer in the NBA and when you look at his Twitch setup it’s hard to not see why. You can tell that, when he’s not working out, practicing, or streaming, he’s still playing games to pass the time. This also allows him interact with other NBA players he might not get to see very often.

“I’d say I like playing with Mikal Bridges, my teammate,” Booker said. “Karl Towns is one of ’em. Paul George, we’ve ran some Warzone together. Probably Meyers Leonard and Ben Simmons, those two are probably next in line when it comes to the talent level of the Call of Duty.”

While games are a great way to interact with people that you may not get the chance to see otherwise they can also provide another purpose. Traditional sports athletes and eSports players have one thing in common. They are all insanely competitive. Sometimes you can’t turn off that switch and you will notice that a lot of the games they gravitate towards are competitive games. Call of Duty: Warzone, League of Legends, Valorant, etc are all a favorite among the kind of people who are paid professionally to compete.

“That’s the reason I like League of Legends,” said Ricky ‘Atura’ Lugo coach of the Call of Duty League’s Florida Mutineers. “It’s like League of Legends is so competitive and it’s very toxic, but it’s very competitive. I play that along with Valorant. So it’s worth it cause it’s so rewarding if you win.”

This sense of competitiveness was a common feeling across eSports players and athletes. Even when they’re not competing they’re still trying to find ways to compete.

“I think in order to actually be a true competitor you have to want to compete all the time and you have to like competing,” said Flaherty. “I grew up watching traditional sports and I’ve heard so many stories about athletes like NFL players specifically that don’t enjoy playing the game, but they loved competing. So it makes them like playing the game and they don’t like what it does or they don’t like the actual preparation required, but their brain tells them the like the competitiveness (and it) makes them want to do it.”

It only makes sense that, when being stuck in a pandemic trying to find something to do, the world’s greatest competitors are going to continue finding ways to compete. Some of them do it alone, while others seek out competition with teammates and friends. Of course, at the end of the day, the true goal is to actually spend some time with others in a way that everyone can enjoy. Whether that’s through competition, just hanging out with friends and teammates, or spending time with people you wouldn’t see otherwise.

That last part is something that gaming is uniquely qualified to provide, not just amid a pandemic. We live in an age where technological advances allow us to spend time with people not just across the country but across the world. Florida Mutineers GM and former professional Halo player Tom “Ogre” Ryan has a twin brother living in Australia. The two used to dominate the professional Halo circuit together, and now the best way for them to spend time together is through gaming. Ryan has also spent years meeting and making friends all over during his career, so when he had to move to Florida to become the Mutineers GM, gaming became the way he would stay connected with them.

“I just moved down to Florida last year to work for Misfits,” Ryan said. “I’ve only been down here a year and I don’t know anyone other than co-workers. So we don’t have a whole lot of local friends like I did back in the day up in Ohio where I’m originally from, but I keep a lot of long distance friends from all over the world that I’ve met through gaming over the last 15 years. I’ve met people everywhere and they’re on my online friends list and we get on and play video games and during quarantine there’s nothing better to do.”

Ryan’s sentiment was shared by many. When you’re stuck in quarantine, there is really nothing better to do than just sit down and game.

“Usually if I’m gaming with other people it’s generally other players on the team or some of my friends from home, to kinda catch up with them,” Brian “Saintt” Baroska coach of the Minnesota RØKKR said. “It’s a bunch of my friends back from middle school, high school, it’s people that I’ve known my whole life and you know we’ve always kinda shared that bond in gaming and it’s something we’ve always done with each other for quite some time, and I feel like we’ve had more instances to do it now than before.”

What Baroska said about video games being that connection was interesting because anyone that grew up playing games knows the feeling. Before Twitch streams and Esports there was a sense of identity that video games created. When you met someone else that played video games it was exciting, because it was something you could immediately connect and identify with. Of course, now seemingly everyone plays video games. It is truly mainstream and it’s great, because during a global pandemic it has allowed all of us, despite the social distancing, to stay connected in some way with each other.

“Video games have always been a part of my life and meeting new people through friends of friends and through my teammates and just in general,” said Halpern. “It’s always a good way to bond and especially in a time like this is it’s so crucial to be playing with other people and be interacting with other people. Otherwise, you’ll get really lonely if you’re just quarantine not doing anything. Games are just such a crucial way to get past rough times like this where you can’t actually go see your friends. You have such a good way of communicating through video games.”

The gaming community is ever-expanding, as there are now games to fit any personal style or preference. Video games have always been about the community, cultivating relationships with people that have similar interests and enjoy the same games. The growth of online gaming has only furthered that sense of community for people, as they can find and make friends virtually around the world. Now, more than ever, that connectivity shines through, as for professional gamers, athletes, and regular people alike, video games have provided not just a welcome escape during this time, but an important service for socialization when that can’t otherwise happen in person.