Esports Simpson Park
Students play in the "Madden NFL 22" championships recently at the Simpson Park Community Center. | City of Lakeland

Several years ago, City Parks and Recreation Director Bob Donahay was interviewing former NFL player Marvin Reeves for a job and asked him about his philosophy in dealing with kids at city recreation centers.

“He goes, ‘Bob, too many times it’s all about balls … football, baseball, basketball. That’s all we care about getting kids into our recreation center.’ He looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing for the kids that aren’t athletic? What do you do for those kids to get those kids out of the neighborhood and into your doors?’ He really made us take a step back and look,” Donahay told city commissioners Tuesday.

Reeves got the job, although is now working for Polk County Public Schools.

On Tuesday morning, Superintendent of Recreation Mike Marotz unveiled plans for a $75,000, state-of-the-art esports center at the Coleman-Bush Building, which is next to Jackson Park on MLK Boulevard. The center — sponsored by MidFlorida Credit Union — is expected to open around Jan. 1 and is designed to help teach students science, technology, engineering and math skills.

“A year ago, we all came together and we came up with this crazy idea.”

Mike Marotz, Lakeland Superintendent of REcreation

Marotz said City Manager Shawn Sherrouse challenged them to do something innovative to help kids who might not be interested in traditional athletics.

“A year ago, we all came together and we came up with this crazy idea,” Marotz said. “And we think we hit a home run.” The City Commission voted unanimously to approve a five-year naming rights deal with MidFlorida.

A rendering of the MidFlorida Esports Center at the Coleman-Bush Building, which is set to open in January. | Courtesy City of Lakeland

The room will have 20 gaming consoles on which students can compete with the computer or someone else in the room in collaborative games like “League of Legends,” one of the top games college teams play. In the game, a team of five players pick from a group of champions that have powers and do special things. Marotz said their goal is to capture the other team’s base. 

“You have to work as a team to get these things done,” he added.

The Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Museum at Lakeland Linder International Airport also donated two flight simulators so students can learn how to fly planes.

No shooting games

But he wanted to assure parents and taxpayers that there will not be any first-person shooting games in the esports room, but instead “the basic games that the colleges use.” There will be no “Mortal Combat” or “Grand Theft Auto” — both violent games that involving graphic depictions of murder.

“All of our games will be monitored by the staff there,” Marotz said.  “If a child goes in there, they’ll be playing against the computer or someone else in the room. They’ll not be playing against someone in, like, California unless it’s a monitored tournament … Everything will be in-house as much as possible. It’s more of a controlled environment.”

He said they are hoping to get enough players to form a league to play against other cities or leagues. But, again, it will all be monitored by staff.

This isn’t the city’s first go-round with gaming. In 2021, the city started an esports program, installing a few Xboxes at Simpson Park, but they realized they needed to do more to enhance the esports experience and look beyond one or two students playing video games.

Marotz said there are more than 8,600 high school teams across the United States and more than 200 colleges and universities participating in varsity esports programs across the country, who adhere to the National Association of Collegiate Esports guidelines.

And, he added, people not only play esports, they also watch them.

Last year 11 million people watched the Stanley Cup playoffs, while 58 million watched the League of Legends World Championship tournament.

College scholarships and STEM careers

“Esports is a non-contact sport that doubles as an opportunity to generate pathways to modern careers. Many of these future jobs are centered around STEM,” Marotz said. “The infrastructure required to keep esports moving requires a bevy of STEM skills. Esports take that left-brained approach and makes it rewarding.”

Some of the skills and jobs that students enrolled in esports programs can expect to stumble into include coding, data analytics, statistics and math.

“STEM accounts for 67% of all U.S. jobs,” Marotz said. “As such, schools are beginning to implement more of the core curriculum previously reserved for coding boot camps and other private institutions. Many gamers and esports athletes want to learn how games are made, and it starts with computer programming. If you have an esports program, it will no doubt be filled with the typical student who has an endless curiosity about what’s under the hood.”

Marotz said things like data analytics can seem dry and boring in the classroom, but come to life on the video game console.

“Esports is such a golden opportunity to provide an exciting, hands-on environment for students to learn by doing,” he said.

Donahay said it is a cost-effective way to get kids involved in team sports because there is zero travel involved.

“It’s really the perfect sport for high school and college,” Donahay said. “Unlike football or basketball where I’ve got to transport players and, if it’s out of state, you’ve got to pay for housing.  Not with this — with this you just walk into your gaming rooms.”

Currently, Simpson Park has more than 40 students enrolled in its after-school program. The esports program will be overseen by a board, with members from:

  • City employees from Parks & Rec and several other departments
  • Keiser University
  • Southeastern University
  • Florida Southern College
  • Florida Polytechnic University

“We want to provide a safe location for our youth to learn something more than just playing video games,” Marotz said. “We want to see our kids get offered a scholarship to a college for esports and have a signing party in the room. We want to see them graduate from college and we want to see them be successful in life.”

MidFlorida sponsorship

MidFlorida’s chief financial officer, Zelda Abram, was on hand to present an enlarged check to the city for the program. She explained that MidFlorida was founded by a group of teachers and the Coleman-Bush Building was their first branch location.

“Our board and the organization, we’re very committed to education,” Abram said. “And when I presented it to our board — they’re all former educators — they were excited about it. A lot of them knew more about esports than I did. And they were excited that it gives our community an opportunity to give back to kids and to potentially give them an opportunity to get scholarships and to attend college.”

She added that the jobs Marotz talked about are ones offered at MidFlorida.

“We’re hiring for all of those,” she said. “So we can all come full circle.”

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at or 863-272-9250.

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