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With Esports, AAU Has Hit the Ground Running

8 Sep, 2021

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

When AAU launched its first esports event, held in conjunction with its Junior Volleyball National Championships in 2019, people noticed – but more attention was focused on the competition itself. After all, that event is a Guinness World Record-setter.

But esports was far from an afterthought; in fact, AAU announced a partnership with the United States Esports Federation (USEF), the national governing body, to help develop and onboard the program.

The launch of AAU’s esports program in Orlando was done in partnership on Allied Esports’ HyperX Esports Truck, North America’s first mobile esports arena and production studio. Bee & Kin, maker of luxury handbags for women, sponsored the esports event, and the United States eSports Federation’s  President Vlad Marinescu selected Allied Esports as the production partner for at first first event.

The event, according Tony Staley, AAU’s associate director of sports, “was held in a portable trailer outside the venue for athletes to enjoy or try out. It was not an event held on its own.”

Then came 2020.

“COVID really made us pump the brakes bit on implementing some of the things we had planned to implement out of the gate,” notes Staley.

But still, AAU spent time quietly building its esports program. In May 2020, it announced Rival as its national provider for AAU esports games, competitions, programs and platforms. In August of 2020, AAU launched individual online competitions for FIFA 20, NBA 2K20 and Madden20.

In 2021, AAU offered competitions in MLB The Show 21 Summer Classic, NBA 2K21 and the NHL 21 Cup Classic. It also hosts Rocket League Wednesdays. In March, it launched its discord server.

These days, esports is up and running and according to Keri Burns of AAU’s marketing and communications department.

“We are in the process of creating more championships virtually for the time being, with the intent to do some in-person events in the future,” she notes.

There was no immediate word on whether more esports events will be included in future editions of the AAU Junior Olympic Games (in 2022, that event moves to Greensboro).

And having kids get into esports is a worthwhile endeavor, considering the ever-growing number of competitive esports programs being offered at the college level and the scholarship funds at stake. (The National Federation of State High School Associations, NFHS, realized the magnitude of the situation several years ago, and debuted its own program, including introductory materials for not-yet-savvy teachers and administrators).

AAU’s choice of titles is also unique.

“We only carry the sports-related games like Madden, FIFA, NBA2k and Rocket League,” notes Burns.

This sets AAU apart from many other organizations, that concentrate on the FPS (first-person shooter) games that enjoy popularity with the younger demographic.

In this regard, AAU is taking a road similar to that of the Olympics. Despite the IOC’s wish to attract younger viewers, a sticking point in terms of the adoption of esports into the Olympics has been the inherent violence in some of the most popular games, including Fortnite, Overwatch and League of Legends. The IOC continues to find this incompatible with Olympic ideals, although gamers have long held that sports such as wrestling, boxing and martial arts are all combative in nature, and that shooting, whether arrows or firearms, uses the same skills as those developed by gamers.

The only aspect of esports the IOC finds acceptable are games based on actual sports, and the IOC encouraged international governing bodies “to ensure they gain or retain appropriate control over the electronic/virtual versions of their sports” and to restrict “their engagement to activation in the e-versions and virtual forms of their traditional sports.”

And while as a whole the IOC continues to reject esports, it has noted that any games considered as an adjunct by governing bodies, should, according to president Thomas Bach, be free of violence, killing and explosions, and be designed to “promote peace among people.”

In the meantime, AAU continues to move forward with its online events.

“We are exploring a lot of different avenues with Rival currently,” said Staley, “and plan on doing something again in the near future.”

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