KITCHENER -- Although many sports and activities have been put on hold during the pandemic, there is one student athletics program that's been thriving.

James Fitzgerald is the Commissioner of the Ontario Post-Secondary E-Sports (OPSE) league, which just finished its inaugural season and attracted a lot of attention.

“We streamed the entire season on Twitch four nights a week, and for playoffs, we switched to a five nights a week structure to get the students in front of as many eyes possible," he said. "Over that period we streamed to over 400 thousand unique viewers across North America.”

Unlike physical sports for which colleges and universities have separate leagues, OPSE combines both.

Fitzgerald described the combination of schools as a type of competition you’ve never been able to see before. For example, Conestoga College and Waterloo University, two schools both based in Waterloo Region, could compete against each other for the first time in official athletics history.

The OPSE only offers mixed-gender teams.

The 2020-2021 season included teams from16 post-secondary institutions across the province. The season offered four video game options at the competitive level: Hearthstone, League of Legends, Overwatch and Rocket League.

The University of Waterloo Warriors brought home virtual gold in Overwatch, with an 11-1, 2020-2021 season record.

Fitzgerald says the idea of building a league was always in the background, but the pandemic escalated the project.

“One of the benefits of e-sports over your traditional sports is the flexibility.”

Although video game competitions are sometimes played in person, the option to play from home is available which is what OPSE decided to do for their inaugural season.

The supervisor of the Conestoga College Recreation Centre, Mark Cullen, says e-sports were a big hit with students.

“Our building has been closed since last March," he said. "Really, the only thing we've been able to run with all our traditional sports being shut down was e-sports so it was a cool opportunity to keep the Conestoga Condors name going.”

The virtual games allowed competitive school spirit to stay alive.

Some teams, including the Conestoga Condors, even wore jerseys while playing from home.

“It makes it a little more official that way, we definitely feel a part of the school,” player and Conestoga League of Legends coach Jeffery Chong said.

Chong is a Conestoga student who was really happy to see the league take off.

“We're starting to be taken a little more seriously,” Chong said, adding he’s happy “this is actually going to be a thing.”

Cullen says he was blown away by just how many students showed serious interest.

“We saw hundreds of students getting involved in this. Whether it was interest in our competitive teams, we also launched a recreational community that kind of backed that competitive team.”

Fitzgerald says now that the league has its first season completed, they will begin marketing the experience to more schools. Hoping a year’s worth of engagement statistics will help him sell the video gaming community and its positive impacts.

“Here's the student engagement, here's the student involvement, here's all the impact we were able to make on student life. We can see the value in it now.”

A virtual competitive community, where school colours are proudly and safely worn from home.