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Talking about Hillsborough’s esports program and video games

Robert Cruz oversees a Hillsborough County esports program for kids at the Northdale Park & Recreation Center.
Robert Cruz, right, runs the Hillsborough County Parks & Recreation Department's esports program at the Northdale Park & Recreation Center’s esports lounge in Carrollwood.
Robert Cruz, right, runs the Hillsborough County Parks & Recreation Department's esports program at the Northdale Park & Recreation Center’s esports lounge in Carrollwood. [ Hillsborough County ]
Published Jul. 8

TAMPA — Everyone is into video games these days, including the Hillsborough County Parks & Recreation Department. The county has its own esports program.

Basically, esports stands for electronic sports, or competitive video gaming. Millions now watch gamers compete for millions in prize money.

Robert Cruz grew up playing video games and now he runs the county esports program at the Northdale Park & Recreation Center’s esports lounge in Carrollwood.

The lounge is stocked with about 20 different video games. It opened last summer to all ages, but the average age of current participants is 7 to 12 years old, he said. Last spring, the county opened a second esports lounge at the Emanuel P. Johnson Recreation Center in Progress Village.

Cruz, 29, is an Oviedo native and has a master’s degree in sports management from the University of Minnesota. He honed his skills in competitive esports there playing Overwatch.

He talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the county’s video game program, how skilled professional esports players are and why some can earn millions from competing.

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Why is it called esports? Why not something like egaming?

When you think of esports, many people think of it as hyper-competitive gaming, like you are getting paid to do this, you’re a professional organization and this is what you do for your job.

Unlike traditional sports, we haven’t gotten to the point where we can differentiate between the different types of esports or just gaming in general. It’s called esports and no one’s really branched out or tried to coin terms that would (denote) the differences in them, so it’s all-encompassing in the current day and age.

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Can someone make a living playing hyper-competitive esports?

Yeah. There are people who do this for a living. I actually knew somebody who ended up going on to get paid, not to play but to coach. He got recognized and signed by a professional organization to coach their teams.

The organizations are looking for gamers within their infrastructure. They want to hire people who know their game and know what their community wants and desires.

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Hillsborough County has an esports lounge where kids can play video games at the Northdale Park & Recreation Center in Carrollwood.
Hillsborough County has an esports lounge where kids can play video games at the Northdale Park & Recreation Center in Carrollwood. [ Hillsborough County ]

How many esports players are able to make money?

Right now, I would say that there is probably less than 1% — similar to that of professional football in America — that actually do make a living.

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I know for a fact that the individuals who are in the Overwatch league, the professional organization for the video game Overwatch, they are like .00001 percent of the total game (players). They’re such a small set of people that it’s just hard to fathom how few of them there are.

When I played the game, I got to the top 1%. I felt accomplished, but then you look at those players and if I had to play against any of (them), which was very seldom, maybe once or twice, they were just on a completely different level.

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How much prize money can be won in competitions?

I’m going to give you (the International Dota 2 Championship), which I think is the largest prize pool. The prize pool for the invitational was $40 million in 2021.

Team Spirit took home $18.2 million.

(Editor’s note: Team Spirit, a group of gamers from Russian, won the largest pool of money in e-sports history in October playing in Dota 2, a multiplayer online battle game.)

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How do you accommodate players using the esports lounge?

If you are in our after-school program or our summer program, we have designated times throughout the week in which they’re able to come and have use of our lounge.

For the most part what we’ve done is we’ve configured it to where we can maximize the number of kids playing at any one time.

(More than one can play) a lot of the games. Say, Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, you can take four to six at any one moment in that one game.

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We have more than enough space to be able to accommodate a bunch of kids. In the summer camp right now, what we do is we have a group that has the room for the whole day, so they can come and go as they want. As they need to rotate kids in and out of that room they’re able to do that throughout the day.

When it comes to open play nights (for) the public, the most we’ve had in the room at any one point is 24 kids. And everyone still got to play and were not waiting too long. Most of the kids want to play Fortnite on the back wall, so I have them play duos. And if I need to have a person on deck, the person with the least eliminations (in the game) is going to switch off. …

If anyone is waiting, they’re not waiting for more than 10 minutes at most.

How did you get into this?

I’ve been playing video games practically all of my life. I used to watch my father play Tomb Raider and probably some other games that weren’t very age appropriate at the time. They were horror games, so they’re very scary for me, so I had nightmares.

I didn’t really get into the multiplayer aspect of video games, really, until Halo: Combat Evolved (in 2001.) But when I really started to find out about the true potential for myself, I was playing Overwatch and I was going to the University of Minnesota to get my master’s degree.

I ended up trying out for the (college) Overwatch team ... In our first season we got all the way to the top 50.

It was a fun time and I still keep in contact with all the people. We did stuff outside of the game together as a group. We’d always go get food or whatnot on campus, and go see events. They’d have watch parties for the Overwatch league at the university.

I think what made it an impactful experience for me is I’m in a completely different area, coming from Orlando. I didn’t know anybody and these people (welcomed ) me with open arms and we just had a good time, just a bunch of strangers getting together for the first time. We showed that we were able to succeed.

People blame video games for so much. What’s your take?

I will say it really depends on what the kids are playing. And also there are a lot of other modes of entertainment media that are just as violent. This is something that’s gone on since the invention of the TV and just basic entertainment in general.

I wouldn’t put this directly onto video games but I will say that when the only type of entertainment that you’re consuming is relatively violent, from different modes, then that seems to be an issue with supervision over what’s occurring, maybe at home even. I don’t think video games are to blame.

They tried to blame Columbine on the game Doom. There are plenty of other people who played the game Doom in the early 90s that did not do what they did. To blame video games alone, I think, is unjust.

Can video games be addictive?

I would think yes, but that’s also true of any hyper-stimulatory form of entertainment media.

The thing that’s different about video games from other forms of entertainment is that it’s interactive. You put in input and you see it on the screen versus, like, TV (where) you’re being told what is occurring and you’re just consuming it.

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Learn more

For more information about Hillsborough County Parks & Recreation Department’s esports program, click here.

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