White: eSports are here to stay

Austin White

Defining a sport is a difficult task and the introduction of eSports over the past few years has made the topic even more complicated.

Some argue that looking at a computer screen, clicking a mouse and typing on a keyboard is far from a sport. But it’s impossible to deny the traction that the industry has gained in recent years. Chris Haskell, eSports program director at Boise State, certainly believes in the trend.

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“It’s a sport because ESPN broke the news that Boise State was coming out with an eSports program,” Haskell said. “We can debate it, we can define it, but if ESPN is putting as many resources into eSports, it tells you people want to watch it…that it has merit.”

The stereotype of gamers being kids huddled around a screen simply does not have merit anymore.

In a game like “League of Legends,” players must make lightning quick decisions and actions that equate to the kind of thinking that must go into throws from quarterbacks on the football field or the swing of a bat from hitters at a ballpark. Players are placed onto a battlefield and must attack the other team while also trying to capture objectives and avoid being killed.

All this information must be processed in mere seconds. If not, players pay the price.

League of Legends players on a stage with the blue team on the left and the red team on the right.
A “League of Legends” match being played on a main stage in North America. (Photo courtesy of Gabriel Gagne)

“There is no cardiovascular element to it at all, but there is real technical skill, there is real mental acuity and processing and strategy that goes into it and it takes real mental discipline,” said Kurt Melcher, founder and director of the first eSports scholarship program in the country at Robert Morris University Illinois. “I can’t think of a sport that doesn’t require a high level of mental discipline.”

These athletes, yes athletes, practice throughout the week to craft their game and improve communication. As Melcher describes, coaches also work with the players by reviewing film and picking apart upcoming opponents, just like one would see from an athlete in any of the major sports.

The mental athleticism within these players is undeniable. But adding a sport into the fabric of society and college athletics takes quite a bit of work. A central organization is needed to regulate all the matches, funding for scholarships is required, professional teams need sponsors and they need a place to compete.

eSports has all of these necessities in place.

At some smaller universities, funding for the programs comes from the athletic department while others have been sponsored by the school’s student affairs programs or from academic departments.

Four schools with FBS Division I football teams have started eSports at their university and all four receive their funds from academic areas of the school. Those schools are Utah, Georgia State, Miami (Ohio) and Boise State.

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At Boise State, the eSports program receives funds from the College of Education in the Department of Educational Technology and from the College of Innovation and Design. The Broncos are also building a new arena which they will use the revenue from to help fund the program.

The Broncos will be participating in the National Association of Collegiate eSports (NACe) with 37 other teams. Games range from “League of Legends” to “Overwatch” or even “Rocket League.”

All of these matches are broadcasted live on Twitch, an online streaming site that has become the home of eSports viewing. Millions of people have flocked to the website, including a record 43 million total viewers for the 2016 League of Legends World championship.

The 2017 championship, put together by the game’s creator, Riot Games, will be held in at the Beijing National Stadium. Also known as The Bird’s Nest, the arena has a capacity of 80,000 people.

Viewers online are expected to drop this year because of the time difference between China and the United States. The record-setting event in 2016 was held in Los Angeles with a much more American-friendly time of viewing.

The NBA, who has experienced nothing but growth over the past few years, is also jumping on the eSports bandwagon. Back in February of this year, the NBA announced the creation of the “NBA 2K eLeague.”

Each NBA team will eventually be represented and each one will have five gamers that travel and compete with other teams coinciding with the actual NBA team’s schedule. The league is scheduled to start in 2018 with 8-12 teams being represented, but all 30 will eventually be a part of the league.

Specifically in the college level, more schools each year are coming out with eSports programs no matter what department they might fall into. This trend is something that Haskell, a professor at Boise State with many published works on the educational influence of games, believes Boise State could not ignore.

“I realized that campus eSports and varsity eSports wasn’t something that could potentially happen on my campus…but something that would happen in those spaces,” Haskell said. “I knew that if we didn’t capitalize on the opportunity we would spend decades regretting it.”

A report by The Next Level, an online site that tracks the business of eSports, concluded that roughly 655 students will collect around $4.1 million in scholarships through eSports in 2017.

Earlier in the year, the Big Ten Conference announced a partnership with Riot Games to sponsor a tournament within the conference that was held from January to March. The Pac-12 also announced a plan to add eSports at some time in the near future.

But that is the major difference between these schools with actual programs and others who are only club activities. Varsity status.

Varsity status allows for a sport to receive funding directly from the athletic department and allows for them to use school facilities and offer scholarships. Club sports often require students to pay in order to play and they must gather at off-campus locations to practice and compete.

So why would a university want to make a bunch of lazy teenage kids on their computer into a varsity sport? Melcher, a former Division I soccer player at the University of Illinois-Chicago, believes it gives these students opportunities to interact with campus and fellow classmates that they would not do without it.

“It increases student engagement who probably wouldn’t be on an athletic team or involved in much other sort of activities on campus,” Melcher said. “It helps retention and students (who are) involved in co-curricular activities do better academically and graduate at a higher rate than the normal student body, so it makes sense educationally too.”

A meeting of NCAA officials is set to be held this month where one of the topics being discussed is the growing interest of eSports from universities across the campus. However, Haskell believes these talks will not make much of an impact as eSports has been discussed previously and Title IX restrictions make it difficult for schools to add new sports.

“This conversation has happened no less than probably 25 times before,” Haskell said. “(The NCAA) often discuss new and emerging sports, this is not new…The NCAA regularly looks for opportunities to not regulate and manage more sports. Title IX forced them to take on many more than they were time capable of.”

With Boise State jumping into the eSports mix, it begs the question of whether the rest of the Mountain West will be joining them. Haskell believes San Diego State or Utah State are the most likely candidates to add a program in the near future.

As for CSU, the eSports Association at Colorado State University is listed online, but no upcoming events can be found from their page on RamLink.

Still, eSports are on the rise and people from around the globe are gravitating towards the excitement these competitions bring. Colleges are hopping on board and professional teams have sponsors like Logitech and Razer. The stigma around their athleticism is falling daily, thus eliminating any remaining questions.

Welcome to the sports world, geeks and gamers of the globe.

Collegian sports reporter Austin White can be reached by email at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @ajwrules44.