UChicago intramurals bring together socially distanced students for virtual competition

College students reimagine campus traditions through esports and online games

Intramurals are a much-loved tradition on campus, bringing students together for friendly inter-house competition on the court, the field and even the Midway ice rink. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Chicago’s intramural sports program has adapted its offerings to meet the needs of our newly virtual community.

“We had to quickly pivot and figure out what we were going to do to still interact with our students and give them this opportunity to engage with each other and do something outside of schoolwork,” said Matthew Fox, UChicago director of intramurals and recreational sports.

Despite having to learn on the fly at the beginning of the pandemic, Fox said Spring Quarter 2020 was a success—both in terms of sign-ups and student feedback. Since then, Fox identified some staples of remote gaming and esports that will continue throughout Winter and Spring Quarters, and his team is brainstorming “fresh ideas to keep students excited and interested in participating.”

The intramurals program typically offers around 12 sports and games each quarter, so that there is enough variety for students. “We realize that we have a unique student body here and we try to get creative even during regular times with what we offer,” Fox said. “We want everyone to get involved.”

This winter, students chose from video games like Among Us, FIFA 21, Mario Kart, Minecraft and Super Smash Bros.; virtual board and card games such as Scrabble, euchre, hearts and spades; a lip sync competition; and the Maroon Step Challenge, which promoted movement and exercise.

Super Smash Bros., now in its third consecutive season, has fast become a favorite among UChicago students. “Super Smash Bros. really took off,” Fox said. “There’s a UChicago Smash Club that has been really active in helping putting this together.”

Super Smash Bros. has since expanded from individual competitions to three-person crews, creating more of a team feel. At the end of the season, the players participate in a real-time online tournament, during which friends and classmates can tune in and watch the livestream of the matches.

Yinsu Han, a second-year math major from China, became involved in intramural mahjong during Autumn Quarter after getting a text from one of her best friends. “I thought that was a great thing to do during a time when everyone was restricted in his or her own place,” she said. “I missed my time back in China, so I thought mahjong could be an interesting way to give me some home vibe.”

Han won the final tournament in an exciting tiebreaker round, emerging as the fall champion. She called the season “a really wonderful experience to me, especially at the final round. I would say the game is itself largely dependent on luck, so I believed it was the four of us together that made the game really enjoyable.”

Devin Hoover, a second-year student double majoring in astrophysics and history, described the fall backgammon tournament as an adventure. “I was demolished in my very first game,” Hoover said, “but I managed to win the next three games, meaning I was the highest-scoring competitor with one loss and occupied the lowest seed going to the semifinals.” Hoover ultimately finished as the Autumn Quarter backgammon champion.

Fox is hopeful that intramurals will continue providing students with opportunities to connect and compete in a fun virtual environment. The aim, he said, is that “everyone can feel comfortable with where they’re playing and have fun with it. That’s the ultimate goal at the end of the day—just to have fun opportunities to connect.”

—Adapted from a story first published by the UChicago College.