Why YMCA Calgary is Pioneering Esports as Part of its Youth-Focused Programming

In 2023, YMCA Calgary launched a four-phase plan to bring esports to Calgary’s two largest YMCAs. Now, it plans to expand the project across Canada.

Photo by Jared Sych.

The YMCA, which has long advocated for active and healthy lifestyles, is now attempting to connect with youth in the digital age via esports — a first-of-its-kind program for the organization.

“We want to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of the youth in our community,” says Sarah Malahias, strategic lead of child, youth and family programs for YMCA Calgary. “All these youth are already playing esports, they want to play esports … so we’re being a part of that esports ecosystem.”

Simply put, esports are video games that have grown in popularity to the point where they are played at a professionally organized and competitive level. When Malahias attended an esports expo in Edmonton, she realized the profound potential to engage with youth. “I got a sense that the values and goals of the esports community aligned well with the YMCAs values and goals. Both provided a space to play, to learn and to connect,” Malahias says. “The esports community is just everything the YMCA emulates.”

Malahias pitched the idea of introducing esports to Brigitte Edwards, senior director of programs at YMCA Calgary, who gave her the go-ahead to take the concept to reality. “This is an opportunity for us to hopefully be able to connect with youth in a different way,” says Edwards.

Photo by Jared Sych.
Photo by Jared Sych.

With the green light, Malahias’s team hit the ground running, devising a four-phase plan to bring esports to Calgary’s two largest YMCAs, Shane Homes YMCA at Rocky Ridge and Brookfield Residential YMCA at Seton. The plan’s first phase, which launched in October 2023, opened the door with a series of virtual tournaments featuring games like Rocket League, Fall Guys and an esports version of chess. On Jan. 20, 2024, the team took the next step and transitioned into in-person tournaments.

Phase 3, launching this spring, introduces league play. Members participate in two hours of practice and tournament play per week at this stage, which Malahias notes is more than just joining a tournament: “They’re joining a community.”

Phase 4, set to begin this summer, will introduce week-long esports camps that encompass more than just simply playing video games. “We also want to layer in some physical components, mental components and digital components into that curriculum, as well,” says Malahias.

Midway through developing the four-phase plan, YMCA Canada announced an Innovation Grant. Malahias’s team pitched their esports idea and won. The team now has $40,000 to begin expanding the project across Canada.

Photo by Jared Sych.
Photo by Jared Sych.
Photo by Jared Sych.
Photo by Jared Sych.

Learn more about the people and organizations moving Calgary forward with Avenue's Innovation Newsletter.

This article appears in the May 2024 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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