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Esports facility booting up in Paducah this summer

Courtesy of Contender Esports

A new esports facility is coming to western Kentucky.

Paducah businessman John Truitt is the CEO of Relentless Contenders, and he announced the opening of a Paducah franchise of Contenders Esports at a Fireside Chat at the Cape Girardeau office of Codefi. A Cape Girardeau franchise is also in the works. There are over 20 Contender esports franchises worldwide offering gamers a spot to gather and compete in games like League of Legends, Rocket League, Apex Legends and Valorant.

Truitt had a meeting at Murray State University and learned about an esports arena being developed at the university. Some statistics blew his mind.

“It was really eye opening because here was something I’d just barely heard about and it’s the most popular sport in the world. In 2021, there were more viewers of esports in the United States than all other sports except the NFL,” he said. “I think that’s a shocking statistic because the vast majority of people over the age of, say, 35 don’t even know what esports is or have never even heard of it.”

The BBC reported that 439 million people tuned in to esports events in 2020 and that number was expected to keep going up.

Truitt might be in the industry now, but he’s relatively new to the world of competitive gaming. It wasn’t until having a revelation involving his son that he took it seriously.

“I didn’t even know at that point that there was a whole business of esports and teams and competitions and stuff like that and that the sports world is making a shift into esports,” he said. “My son was ranked #30 in one of the characters in Overwatch in the world at that time and I started thinking to myself: ‘If my son played high school baseball and he was the number one-ranked shortstop in the state of Kentucky I would be very supportive and we’d be looking at scholarships for colleges and stuff.’ So I kind of had to make a mental shift.”

Esports programs have popped up all around western Kentucky over the past couple of years. Marshall County High School and Paducah Tilghman High School have KHSAA competitive teams. McCracken County High School is getting in the game. The City of Paducah organizes esports rec leagues. Murray State University has an arena and a team as well.

“Kentucky high schools have competitions right now. It’s not something you hear a lot about if you’re not directly involved and we’re excited about that,” Truitt said. “We feel like this is an area where kids who are good at and like these competitive video games can begin to have opportunities that, traditionally, kids in athletics would have: the benefits of learning to be on a team and being coached.

“We want to be very supportive of what the schools are doing with these programs. We hope that working together with them can also create more awareness in the community of this industry.”

The amount of local youth participation in esports coupled with the ballooning industry numbers worldwide have Truitt confident he can create a place to serve as both an entertainment and a community venue.

Stephen Rich teaches social studies at Paducah Tilghman High School and coaches the school’s esports program. They’re in their first ever season, playing Rocket League, League of Legends and Super Smash Brothers, three of the most popular competitive games.

Rich says students are engaged intellectually by esports and his 16-member team is proof of that.

“It definitely helps students think about strategies,” the teacher and coach said. “It gets a wider scope of kids involved that maybe don’t get involved in traditional athletics. It gives them another outlet or maybe their first outlet.”

PTHS junior Chandler Christ is one of those students. She plays Rocket League – essentially a cartoonish, turbo-charged soccer game played with cars – for the Tornadoes. When a match is coming up, she prepares in advance.

“Sometimes I might watch other players, famous players, and see what their tactics are,” Christ said. “We’ll go through the motions of practicing different kinds of shots and different kinds of defense plays. I talk with my other team and see what they might be doing differently.”

Christ is hopeful about the opening of Contender because she thinks it would be a great place to go and hang out.

“I would love to see the different kinds of people that show up and also play. I think it’d be a very cool experience for anybody, anybody who likes video games,” Christ said.

Rich and Christ are a part of the community that Truitt is hoping to tap into, unify and give a place to gather. A site for the esports facility hasn’t been located yet, though Truitt is hoping to locate one soon. He’s shooting to open in the summer, before the start of the 2022-23 school year.

“It goes so much beyond just the idea of playing video games,” Truitt said. “It’s not a fad. This is a multibillion dollar industry and it’s growing.”

More details are expected to be announced at an event planned for April 14 at Sprocket in midtown Paducah.

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
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