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Connecting with Christian Gamers

The first of a three part series based on how some Christian institutions are embracing the $900 million industry of esports — and what opportunities may lie ahead. 

How can a church’s design foster community engagement and grow ministry?

Over the last several decades, worship facilities have increasingly incorporated interactive classrooms, spacious youth areas, warmly decorated coffee lounges, and even community basketball courts and soccer fields into their campuses with the intent to create welcoming, social environments for their congregations and neighbors.

Now an increasingly virtual world is unfolding with the advent of Internet-based technologies.

The limits of physical geography are lessened, especially as ministries broadcast services and use webcasting technologies to host online forums. And while some houses of worship are embracing the virtual frontier with things like webcast services and online social groups, others are still reluctant.

In the Pacific Northwest, one local youth pastor has had significant influence helping local ministries embrace a somewhat controversial technology: video gaming.

His influence has expanded beyond his church to a local Christian college and helped pave the way for esports scholarships to undergraduates, including ministry majors.  

With eyes on the future, theologians and architects alike see ministry potential in these emerging video game and esports technologies. They argue gaming can foster community and even potentially generate revenue.

Northwest Christian University (NCU) is a small, private institution in Eugene, Ore. It offers a Christ-centered college experience to a student body of about 800.  Like many small, private institutions maintaining and growing undergraduate enrollment can be a challenge.

Sarah Freeman is NCU’s associate athletic director. Among many duties, she is tasked with recruiting new student athletes by way of sports programming and scholarship opportunities. So, when NCU asked her brainstorm new programs to attract additional undergrads, she had to take a hard look at the budget.

“We were looking at baseball and lacrosse,” Freeman recalls. “It’s just really expensive to add those sports when you look at travel.”

Fortunately, NCU is a member of National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which advised Freeman to consider esports (or, competitive team-oriented video gaming). “At first we kind of laughed,” Freeman says, “but slowly it became a way to add a new program. It had low barriers for entry.”

esports teams play competitive video games like Fortnite, League of Legions, Super Smash Bros. or Overwatch in matches that are televised on major networks, including ESPN, and attract millions of online viewers worldwide. More than 125 colleges and universities are part of the National Association of College Esports (NACE) and offer esport athletic programs.

Initially, Freeman says, her team took quickly to the idea of esports. But there were concerns about the perception of violence within esports video games and whether the content aligns with Christian values.

The violence of esports is a common point of reluctance — and not just among Christian schools and organizations. In fact, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has repeatedly declined to include esports in its medal games. Yet, while the IOC currently considers first-person shooter games to be too violent for the organization’s pacifist values, it is considering proposals from sports-simulator games (basketball, soccer, sailing, etc.) to be included at the Paris 2024 games as non-medal demonstration events.

For Freeman’s part, she was advised with a member of NCU’s Board of Trustees to speak with Jamie Harris, a youth pastor at nearby Lakepoint Community Church in Keizer, Ore. who has thought long and hard about the value of esports in the context of Christianity.

Harris, it turns out, is founder of Satellite Gaming. With the slogan, “Pointing students to Jesus Christ by building relationships through video games.”

Satellite agming works with local schools and community organizations to create “shoulder to shoulder” gaming experiences by hosting eSports tournaments and runing after-school gaming programs.

For Harris, faith-based esports programs are a net positive. “It’s not just about the video games,” Harris says. “It’s about the community and culture.” esports events, he argues, draw gamers into social situations much in the way a book club might for isolated “bookworms.”

“When we have events, we don’t have a gospel call, but we do point them [youth gamers] to our discourse, and they end up having relationships with kids that do know Jesus.” He adds, “It’s going to bring God glory; make it your goal to introduce these kids to Jesus by establishing these relationships.”

As for content? Well, Harris continues to struggle a bit himself. “I wish there were an age limit. I wish there were some laws,” Harris admits, conceding that some games may not be appropriate for young children. “I would ask Jesus: ‘How would you be Jesus in 2019, in a technology-filled world? How would you handle esports?’”

Harris does think it’s important to point out that games like Fortnite no longer use the word “kill.” “We say ‘elimination,’” he says, “because it’s not real; it’s a simulator.”  

It was enough for Northwest Christian University. “From those initial conversations, we were all on board,” Freeman says. “We figured this was a way to distinguish ourselves.”

NCU established its team, Beacon eSports, and joined National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), which has more than 125 member schools and offers more than $15 million in combined esports scholarship and aid to students.

With an $80,000 investment in a gaming room and outfitting the team with gaming equipment, NCU has already attracted seven students on scholarship, three of whom are ministry majors.

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