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In the past few years, competitive gaming, or esports, has gone from being a niche hobby to a mainstream, legitimized sport. Schools such as McCallie now sponsor teams, and professional esports competitions are covered by traditional sports media such as ESPN.

Esports viewership is on pace to nearly double its 2017 audience of 335 million by 2023, according to Business Insider estimates — and that was before the novel coronavirus forced nearly everyone in the world to shelter in place.

With people quarantining at home during the coronavirus pandemic, Cory Horne, founder of the Chattanooga Esports League, says league engagement has grown by about 30-40%.

Partial credit for esports' surge in popularity is due to games like Fortnite, which in 2018 brought the already popular game to the smartphones of players who don't consider themselves gamers. The move infused gaming into the popular culture, and rappers such as Travis Scott started hosting tours and releasing songs within the Fortnite game.

Streaming platforms Twitch and YouTube Gaming have also upped the social factor of gaming and turned it into a full-fledged spectator sport.

Horne says EPB's fiber optic network in Chattanooga is a plus for local gamers playing online. Game speed is determined by ping, which is the length of time it takes for your computer to get data from a specific server. "In Chattanooga, we have some of the lowest ping," he says. A lower ping, for example, would allow a player to see someone walking around a corner a few seconds earlier than someone with a higher ping.

Horne started CESL last July when he was unable to find a local league. "It's been really cool to see all the feedback," he says. "A bunch of people in the area were interested as well."

The league's private Facebook group has grown to more than 1,100 members, and it has about 300 in its Discord (a group chat platform for gamers). About 88-90% are male, and most are ages 24-34, says Horne. The most popular games are Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Rocket League 5, Valorant and Counter-Strike.

While the league has hosted a few tournaments here and there, it's set to hold its first tournament season this year. All tournaments are played online from home, and it's currently free to participate. The first event in mid-May saw more than 20 four-person teams participate, Horne says.

The league plans to host 22-32 tournaments annually, with two to three tournaments held each month. Each will have $100-$500 prize pools, says Horne.

To learn more about Chattanooga Esports League, visit facebook.com/groups/chattanoogaesl.

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