In the midst of a global pandemic, a new, invaluable relationship bloomed in Blacksburg between of virtual gaming and sports journalism.

“It’s just really been a perfect marriage,” said Evan Hughes of the partnership between 3304 Sports, the online platform for students sports journalism at Virginia Tech, and Rec Sports’ esports program. “And I think the pandemic was a perfect time to get us involved together.”

Throughout the fall semester, 3304 Sports produced live broadcasts of Rec Sports’ virtual gaming leagues. The students called play-by-play for contests, created in-game graphics, and put together pre- and post-game shows, complete with analysis and interviews. Their work was broadcast in live on Twitch, a global live-streaming platform.

A senior studying multimedia journalism and the sports director for 3304 Sports, Hughes said the arrangement allowed him and other students to get much-needed broadcast experience during a time when going to games in-person was prohibited. 

“Even though the fall semester looked different, we couldn’t just take a semester off, so this was an opportunity to partner with Rec Sports, get students some on-air reps, and to do so in the growing industry that is esports,” Hughes said. “And the coolest thing about all of this is these broadcasts can be used on a reel for you to show a potential employer.”

Hughes said the relationship began with a phone call from Will Trent, an alumnus of the School of Communication and interim associate director of administrative services for Virginia Tech Recreational Sports. 

“I’ve seen the potential for a partnership between Rec Sports and 3304 Sports since coming back to work at Virginia Tech,” said Trent. “With in-person experiential learning opportunities being minimized due to COVID-19, having our esports broadcasted presented itself as a great opportunity for both parties.”

People talking in a virtual setting
Student broadcasters interview a virtual game participant following a contest.

Rec Sports launched esports this fall, offering a variety of games ranging from sports-theme contests, such as Madden NFL and FIFA, to more non-traditional games, such as Rocket League, which features playing soccer with vehicles. The games were broadcast across 10 nights by 3304 Sports, which provided an added level of both professionalism and engagement during a time when many on-campus activities were limited. 

“Our esport matches are very well attended and have provided a much-needed sense of community where students may be struggling to find that in the pandemic era,” said Trent. “We averaged 80 viewers for our weekly broadcasts with a high of 171 views on one stream. Viewers are active in the Twitch chat, too, while engaging with broadcasters and the competition they’re viewing.”

3304 Sports is an offshoot of the Topics in Sports Communications course, which is part of the university’s newly established sports media and analytics major (SMA) and taught in part by the former Voice of the Hokies, Bill Roth. 

“We talk about getting ‘reps,’ getting experience preparing for a broadcast, and executing a live show. This partnership with Rec Sports allowed our students to do all of that on a weekly basis,” said Roth, now a professor of practice in the Department of Communication. “Our students embraced the opportunity to call esports, and other events this semester. They adapted. Anchoring and hosting shows while wearing a mask was a challenge, but it didn’t slow their resolve or the momentum we are building in SMA.”

While the students of 3304 Sports have long produced play-by-play calls for in-person sports, they have previously  been published after the game or match. Esports allowed students to gain experience calling games for a live audience and gave Shaakir Janmohammad the chance to produce and direct the live, remote shows. 

“At the beginning of the semester it was looking like we weren’t going to be able to do anything in person, so I was already pitching for us to go in some sort of virtual direction,” said Janmohammad, a senior studying sports media and analytics. “Then Rec Sports reached out about esports and from there it was just putting the piece together and making it happen.”

Janmohammad said he leaned on some previous experience he had streaming virtual gaming contests online, as well as the experience of fellow student Alex Bruman, who had streamed games on a personal level. He spends about five or six hours from start to finish on each broadcast, including the pre and post-production, scheduling in-game graphics, and directing the broadcast team through their ear pieces. 

“It’s definitely a one-man show, where I just sit in my room and have to manage all these things, but it’s a smaller show than many other sports productions,” said Janmohammad, who previously focused on camera operations and broadcast engineering. “It’s exposed me to a whole different side of broadcasting that I’d never been involved with before. It’s been a really cool experience.”

The connect between 3304 Sports and virtual gaming drew students like Liam Sment, who graduated in December with a degree in multimedia journalism and a concentration in SMA, to experience putting his voice to work in the field for the first time.

“I’d never broadcast before. I came into the program and never really wanted to be a broadcaster. My focus was on graphic design and photography,” said Sment, a longtime virtual gamer and fan of Rocket League. “But as soon as this opportunity presented itself, I was like, this is something I want to be involved with. Something I have to be involved with.”

As a result, Sment finished his time as an undergraduate student having not only done play-by-play live for esports contests, but also for a handful of Virginia Tech women’s basketball games once play resumed. He said he thought the challenging semester brought out the best in him and his classmates.

“To understand what goes into a live show is really important for anyone who wants to go into media, so this has been massive,” said Sment. “This pandemic, it sets up walls, and the best thing we can do is break them down. That’s something I really take to heart and something I think we’ve done really well at 3304 Sports.”

Written by Travis Williams