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Esports program launches at Speer YMCA

Ashley Morales

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Tiago Brandon-Torres, 10, participates in a new esports program hosted at the Speer YMCA's Technology Lab. Photos: Ashley Morales.

A new esports program is entertaining and educating kids at the Speer YMCA.

YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg launched the program in January, making use of the Technology Lab at the recently opened Speer YMCA, which is connected to Mangrove Bay Middle School at a 111,757-square-foot complex on 62nd Ave. NE. 

The new esports program includes all-ages free play hours on Fridays and Saturdays and a nine-week evening course tailored to students aged 6-16. Kids use the Technology Lab’s state-of-the-art gaming consoles and computers to engage in in-person and online gaming in a monitored environment.

“The esports program was born out of the desire to have a safe place for little humans to be able to engage in the things that they like to do, in a social environment that’s supervised by people who actually know what’s going on,” said Tequena Akintonde, YMCA’s Director of Middle Schools and project lead for the esports program. “The students are learning appropriate ways of monitoring themselves and others, what to do and what not to do, and how to play collaboratively, and they’re learning it in a healthy and responsible environment.”

The Speer YMCA Technology Lab is kitted out with multiple gaming computers and consoles, including a Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch.

St. Petersburg resident Chris Brandon exercises at the Speer YMCA while his son, Tiago Brandon-Torres, takes part in the esports program on Tuesday and Thursday nights. He said he’s reassuring to know his son can enjoy online gaming in a supportive, supervised environment while he works out.

“That’s one thing you have to worry about, who kids are talking with over the online games,” Brandon said. “I also like the fact that they’re doing some coding and learning basic computer language skills, too.”

The esports participants are not only playing video games, but also learning how to make their own, building STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) foundations and learning skills to bolster their education and explore potential future career paths.

“In addition to purposeful play, the eSports classes are teaching the in-depth nature of games. So the students are doing coding and programming, they’ve created their own games and soon they’re going to be making background music for the games,” said Akintonde. “They’re learning about storylines and using some of the technology out there that’s helpful to tinker and learn those skills at an early age so that we build them a little bit later.”

Ten-year-old Tiago, a student at Douglas L. Jamerson Elementary School, recognizes how video games can positively affect kids, and he appreciates that he’s able to learn new skills while still having a good time.

“Sometimes when I have a bad day, I just like to relax myself with some video games. But I’ve learned some stuff, too. Video games are not just for fun; they’re for educational purposes, as well. I’ve learned coding and played games that explained the basics of real life,” Tiago said. “I’ve also learned social skills. I’ve made lots of friends, chatting with people and helping them with the games. That’s the point that you realize gaming is not a waste of time.”

A flyer posted at the Speer YMCA advertising free play and introductory esports programming.

As video gaming and esports have ballooned to a more than $200 billion industry, demand for formal extracurriculars and academic options has increased significantly. Akintonde said the YMCA is aiming to expand its esports curriculum to other locations soon, aiming to provide technology courses and camps across St. Petersburg.

“We want to make sure that students have the ability to engage, but that they’re engaging responsibly on platforms that are safe for them,” Akintonde said. “Many times, they are using software that professionals use, creating their own games and videos for their demo reels. So we’re teaching them how to use these tools and helping them understand the purpose, the ‘why’ behind it. And in the process, they’re getting to play the games that they like to play and they’re having fun with it.”

In addition to the esports program, the YMCA plans to use the Technology Lab to host programs aimed at enhancing computer skills for older adults, empowering them to stay connected and navigate the digital world securely. Akintonde added that the programs are not just for YMCA members but also open to the general public, with financial assistance available to help make the programs accessible and inclusive.

“When we designed the program, we were very intentional about making sure that nobody is barred access,” Akintonde said. “We want these opportunities to be open to everyone.”

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