While the coronavirus pandemic has put the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ USL Championship season on indefinite hold, the club is charging ahead with a project that has been gestating since last year.

Last week the club announced the launch of Rowdies Gaming, an initiative with aims of developing athletes in the rapidly growing world of eSports. To kick off the project, Rowdies Gaming is participating in the USL’s FIFA20 eCup that began last week.

Rowdies winger Malik Johnson is a member of the debut Rowdies Gaming roster. Tampa natives and Rowdies supporters David Morales and Carlos Rueda round out the rest of the squad. Chances are you’ve seen Morales and Rueda in the stands at Al Lang, as both have been Rowdies supporters several years.

“We couldn’t be more excited to have Carlos and David represent Rowdies Gaming in our eSports startup project,” Rowdies President Lee Cohen said. “These guys have both showcased that they deserve to be a part of this project with what they represent with their knowledge of the Rowdies brand and the gaming world.”

Morales and Rueda came on the Rowdies’ radar for Rowdies Gaming with their participation in a FIFA20 tournament recently organized by a Louisville City fan who runs the Twitter account USL Memes. Both excelled in that competition, which is still ongoing, making them natural selections for Rowdies Gaming.

Getting the invite from the Rowdies was a welcome surprise for Morales, who graduated from Saint Leo University this week and has been working from home since early March. 

“It’s a little surreal. It’s not something I ever expected to happen, to actually represent the Rowdies,” he said. “I never thought I’d do that in any capacity, especially in a gaming capacity.”

The pitch from the Rowdies was intriguing. Morales and Rueda were offered the chance to play an important role in the launch of a project that could benefit the entire Rowdies organization for years down the road. For now Rowdies Gaming is focused on the USL’s FIFA20 eCUP, but the club also has eyes on building teams to compete in Hearthstone, League of Legends and Rocket League.

“They basically wanted to create sort of an outreach program,” Morales said. “They saw the potential in the eSports market since it is a pretty fast growing market right now. eSports is not just a recreational thing. It can be something that can be a career path for some people. One of the examples they mentioned is that kids can get scholarships to go to college. They’ve consulted with USF and a few other schools and they learned they do give scholarships to students to participate in their eSports teams. That’s what they’re looking to do, create professional gamers basically. By doing that they can expand the Rowdies brand and bring more awareness to the team.”

Some of Rueda’s friends sound like the ones the Rowdies are hoping to reach with Rowdies Gaming.

“The Rowdies have big plans for it and definitely sounds exciting for all interests, even if you don’t like soccer,” Rueda said. “I know some of my friends’ interest has been piqued because they don’t really follow the Rowdies but they follow competitive gaming. It’s an opportunity for the Rowdies to make their mark on that, especially with a lack of professional sports on the field. This is  a fantastic opportunity for them to get their name out to a demographic that hasn’t been exposed to the Rowdies at all.”

Like many people during this time, Rueda is grateful for the chance to fill some of the extra time he has on his hands these days. He wrapped up his last class at Jesuit High School online this week and has already been accepted to Georgetown.

“I have a couple AP exams to take to try and get some college credit. I’m hoping I do well in that, but honestly not much else going on besides that. Just getting some exercise and playing FIFA,” Rueda said.

“Honestly, I hadn’t touched my Xbox for a while before quarantine. I was just starting to pick up my Xbox again and play FIFA. The only reason I got FIFA20 was because the team I follow in Ecuador where my family is from, Liga de Quito, got added because of the new Libertadores games that they added in FIFA.”

Morales and Rueda have yet to play their first match in the USL’s eCup. Rueda will be the first up next week and Morales will follow him the following the week. All the matches will be streamed on Twitch. Rowdies head coach Neill Collins even showed up in the stream for Malik Johnson’s match last week to answer questions.

Nuno Bianchi is serving as coach for Rowdies Gaming as well as Rowdies’ gaming ambassador.

“Nuno’s been working with us and he’s been doing a lot of the technical stuff for the streaming,” Rueda said. “He’s been helping us out a lot. I know when I play next week in the league-organized tournament he’s doing a lot of the behind the scenes technical stuff for me. All I have to do is just play, which is really convenient because I am so out of my comfort zone when it comes to all the technical streaming stuff.”

The Rowdies hope Morales and Rueda are just the first in a long line of competitors to represent Rowdies Gaming. Right now, Rowdies Gaming offers the Rowdies a promising way to engage with supporters and sponsors during uncertain times. However, the initiative won’t be abandoned once things get back to some semblance of normalcy. Even before coronavirus shut everything down, the plan was to install an eSports lounge for fans at Al Lang.

“We are really excited about what the future holds for Rowdies Gaming,’ Cohen said. “As I stated earlier this week, we really believe this will grow our brand even larger and open up new non-traditional sports fans to be a part of our history; past, present and future.”

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