Rafe Kossak began moving forward with his vision of bringing esports to Boulder County in March of 2019. Things moved fast with creating a facility at The Sport Stable last fall and putting a team in place to start up the program. In January, the RoughRiders team held tryouts to find the esports players who would begin with the program.
The group of 16 athletes that are now a part of the program work regularly with practice sessions, online competitions and other group settings they can choose to participate in. So far this year, the team has played in multiple tournaments and have competed amongst themselves in a number of games.
“The Smash Brothers players have probably played in three or four tournaments, the Counter-Strike guys have played in a tournament, some guys went and played in a Rainbow Six tournament, and we’re currently in an active, weekly Overwatch tournament,” Kossak said. “We also threw together a Fortnite tournament (this week), and all of our Fortnite players were in that.”
Just a few months into starting the program, they were impacted like everyone else with the COVID-19 pandemic. The facility they had been using was shut down when large public gatherings were prohibited to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Kossak and Daniel Lewis, the Director of Technology, leaned on their previous experiences in the U.S. Air Force and other personal experiences to help steer the RoughRiders through unprecedented times.
“It’s been constant thinking of how we can adjust,” Kossak said. “A lot of people are going through that. The average, everyday person is thinking about how to adjust, and the beautiful thing is human beings are resilient creatures. When things are thrown at us, we figure out ways to overcome and to get past it.”
Most sports remain on hold and could be canceled in response to the pandemic, but esports is one that is managing to continue without interruption at this time, including with the RoughRiders.
“We’re maneuvering our schedules around in-home activities,” said esports player Dominic Lombardi. “We’ll carry on with the same practices. They could have just shut it down and canceled all the games, but Rafe has made it through with everything going on so we could keep going.”
With competitions exclusively online, players are able to continue gaming from home with other players. They all have been gaming nearly their whole lives and have grown up seeing the advances in gaming that allow playing with others online and teaming up in games such as Overwatch, a multiplayer first-person shooter that he plays for the RoughRiders.
Odin Forman is one of those players on the Overwatch team and has years of experience playing with others online.
“Before I joined (the RoughRiders), I was entering online tournaments,” Forman said. “I’ve always wanted to do this kind of stuff. I’ve been gaming my whole life.”
All the players are used to playing online remotely with others around the world who work together to win a battle in the digital sphere and communicate with one another through headsets while playing. The gaming world today bring players from all ages and experiences together, whether it’s the 13-year old Forman playing Overwatch with other middle school and high school kids to professional NASCAR drivers currently racing in simulated racing events while live racing is on hold.
Players from the RoughRiders go through extensive training to become better players in the games they compete in. Practice sessions include playing against each other or splitting into teams and battling to learn how each player works in the game and to bounce ideas off each other for game play in future tournaments. The teams also utilize replay systems to watch practice sessions and other tournaments to learn and grow moving forward.
“We’re building up our team chemistry and have been doing great,” Forman said of his team. “We can see our improvement.”
But improvement in gaming is far from the only objective the RoughRiders have with its esports program. Physical and mental strengthening are prioritized elements of the program, too.
For a start, the RoughRiders hired a mental performance director to work on the mental side for players, both in competition and in handling stress from the outside world. Each practice session for the team includes a workout session for players to stay in shape, and those workouts continue from home while their facility is shut down.
“Rafe mixes is up for us which I like quite a bit,” Lombardi said. “I think that’s really important. It adds a healthier element for us. I feel that by entering this program, I feel a lot better as a person working out. It’s made me healthier with gaming.”
The players can also learn about how aspects of the gaming world can translate to careers outside of it, from learning about game development to building an online presence and following on social media.
A big part of the program is helping players grow in more ways than improvement in video games, according to Kossak.
“Our initial process was making sure we had a program in mind and that we were able to put together a curriculum that was going to be beneficial to the kids taking part in the program,” Kossak said. “I’m into mentorship and have been doing it since I was in the military. It’s something that hits close to home, so when we were creating this program, it was a question of can we put together a program that is beneficial to the youth in the area and do it through video games.”
It’s that combination of competitive gaming and a balanced lifestyle that has brought many esports gamers to the RoughRiders, and it’s the main message the team wants sent out to those following them during the shutdown.
“I enjoy playing with the RoughRiders because it’s one of the only esports things to do in the state,” Forman said. “I’ve always wanted to do this. I thought it would help me become a better gamer, but it helped me more in life, like with social skills and being a better person.”