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Tech + Life

Forget football. Video games are the next big college sport

Nerds are the new jocks at colleges across the nation, playing Overwatch and Fortnite on esports scholarships.

By Ethan Gilsdorf

On a Friday evening in November, a few minutes before the next match, Becker College coach Nick “Shifty” Travis gathers his varsity squad for a pep talk. “I want cleaner game play than we had in the warm-ups,” he says, pacing in a circle around his warriors. The coach has scouted Becker’s opponent, viewed tapes of their play style and analyzed their top players. “We’ve got to make sure that we deal with the Doomfist,” he says. “Don’t let them have high ground for free. Any questions?”

No questions. No one makes eye contact.

“I want to dominate them.” Shifty settles in front of his laptop. “Envision it. Execute it. It’s as simple as that.”

Given Coach Shifty’s inspiring speech, and the adrenaline spiking in his players’ veins, you might imagine this scene taking place in a gymnasium locker room or on a basketball court sideline. Actually, the “stadium” for this intercollegiate smack-down is a carpeted, fluorescent-lit room. No whistle-blowing refs, no screaming fans, no body contact.

For Becker Blue, the school’s varsity Overwatch squad, the battle is virtual. This is an esports competition — competitive videogaming. Tonight’s opponent, Alfred State College of Technology from Alfred, N.Y., is competing online, from six hours away.

Six players — screen names Chlor, Firebird, Lpain, Xavius, Securen, and SSLURPP — sit in ergonomic gaming chairs and direct the Becker team action. Their eyeballs are fixed on their Alienware PCs and BenQ displays, their fingers poised on their Das mechanical keyboards and Logitech mice. Twelve impatient hands, legs, feet, become twitchier by the second. The pressure’s on: Becker, a tiny Worcester, Massachusetts-based school with only 1,700 students, is, surprisingly, ranked 49th among 467 colleges in this competition.

Competitive esports — yes, they’re sports — now happen at all tiers. Professional esports are organized like ­traditional sports. Teams are based in cities and grouped into leagues. Their players have contracts and salaries, and a celebrity culture surrounds top stars. Tournaments award prize pools in the millions.

The collegiate esports scene has begun to mirror the pros. In recent years, dozens of colleges have amped up their esports programs, going so far as to recruit players, hand out esports scholarships, and build multimillion-dollar esports facilities. It’s not hard to imagine a time in the near future when some Overwatch Championship will rival the Rose Bowl or March Madness.

Serious money

Esports are not to be confused with casual video gaming. Think of the difference between playing pickup basketball after school with your friends and playing on a Division I college or NBA team. The industry’s main categories include single-player strategy titles like Hearthstone or Starcraft II; multiplayer online battle arena games like DotA (Defense of the Ancients) 2 or League of Legends; shooter-survival, battle-royale-style games like Fortnite or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG); and team-based first-person shooter games like Counter-Strike and Overwatch. Esports also make serious money: According to Newzoo, a gaming industry analytics firm, global esports revenues were projected to hit a whopping $1.1 billion in 2019, up 27 percent over 2018.

The growth and mainstream acceptance of esports came as a surprise to me. I’m a nerd, but a skeptical one. My only competitive video game experience dates to the 1980s, when I’d challenge friends to Robotron: 2084 and Galaga, at 25 cents a pop, at my local arcade. Games were for fun, and for basking in the fleeting glory of my initials — “EJG” — emblazoned on a high-score screen. The last first-person shooter game I played was Doom or Quake, during the Clinton Administration.

To my eyes, the game’s digital fisticuffs resembled a fireworks show during an earthquake, a chaotic flurry of jerky hero movements, screen-view changes, and blazing, primary-colored blasts of ammunition littering the screen.

As for modern games, I’d looked over the shoulders of my teenaged nephews as they engaged in the frenetic melees of Overwatch. To my eyes, the game’s digital fisticuffs resembled a fireworks show during an earthquake, a chaotic flurry of jerky hero movements, screen-view changes, and blazing, primary-colored blasts of ammunition littering the screen. I felt as if I might have a seizure.

But when I learned the industry has become professionalized in ways unimaginable to competitors in the Nintendo World Championships of 1990 — Mario Bros., Rad Racer, and Tetris! How cute! — I was intrigued. Clearly players could be as dedicated to their coaches, training regimes, fellow teammates, and matches as other serious athletes. And when I discovered that some young players see esports as a viable path to a college scholarship and all of the glory that sports entail, perhaps I got a little nostalgic for my ancient path to college and my own lost arcade renown. What would it take to succeed as a collegiate esports hero? I wondered. And how had nerds somehow become the new jocks?

Talent versus time

“At Gamer Sensei we believe that inside every player a champion is waiting to emerge. Our professional coaches teach gamers how to make epic plays while winning more and winning better.

That pitch comes from the website of Gamer Sensei, a Boston-based “professional esports coaching service” — part of a burgeoning side industry to give players the skills they need to succeed and, in some cases, to get a leg up on college recruitment.

Gamer Sensei co-founder William Collis, who also co-founded Team Genji, a professional esports team, compared esports to his own basketball dreams: Progress from any amount of shooting baskets was limited by unchangeables like body size and athletic skill. “You have to put in a lot of hours to get good,” he told me. “But it’s not all about practice. It’s also about native human talent.”

In esports, you don’t need to be an amazing physical specimen to succeed. But you need certain skills and talents to play at a high level. Coach Shifty, who has worked with about a dozen college Overwatch programs and won a title with the London-based Overwatch team British Hurricane, told me that each game leans heavily on a particular set of skills. “Being able to click on someone’s head” better than anyone, Shifty said, “will make you one of the best Counter-Strike players in the world.” But that doesn’t guarantee victory in Overwatch, which is more about awareness, spatial perception, strategy, and the ability to collaborate in a tricky interpersonal environment.

“In soccer, you can be yelling across the pitch,” Becker varsity Overwatch player Matt Stratoti (or SSLURPP, his handle in the game) told me. In Overwatch, “You have your headsets on. Halfway across the country, they have their headsets on. It’s a very specific type of communication.”

That requires cooperation. “If you have teamwork in this game,” Shifty says, “it’s a beautiful game. It’s how the game is meant to be played.”

Maryville University and the University of Toronto compete in the League of Legends College Championship Game in 2017. Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

Some colleges, many of them tech schools, have invested heavily in competing at the highest level. Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, whose Overwatch team, the HU Storm, was the 2019 ESPN Collegiate Overwatch Champion, has 26 esports students on scholarship and housing stipends. They work out in a $1.3 million esports training facility. HU’s annual esports budget for teams is $2 million, which pays for coaches, staff, facilities, technology, travel, and events. Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida, recently opened its Fortress Sports Arena, a $6 million, 11,200-square-foot esports complex for its student players. All total, nearly 200 U.S. colleges, ranging from Robert Morris University Illinois to the University of California, Irvine, offer a total of $15 million per year in scholarships, according to Wired. Other colleges are looking to gain a foothold in the esports world. At Northeastern University’s Boston campus, where esports are still a club-team activity, the school’s Overwatch team beat out 14 competitors to win the 2019 Boston Uprising Collegiate Cup, and school officials are looking into elevating the program to the varsity level.

Harrisburg uses some of its budget to hire top mentors, like esports coach Joe “Joemeister” Gramano. The former professional Overwatch player with the Philadelphia Fusion told me that hand-eye coordination and quick reaction times are key for any player. His other must-have skills include “creativity,” “strong critical thinking,” and “a solid understanding of the game.”

Traditional sports expertise doesn’t translate to esports, Joemeister warned. What’s more, a coach in one esport may not be good at another. Timothy Loew, Becker’s varsity esports program general manager and executive director of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute, says hiring a coach for multiple esports would be like having a volleyball team coached by a football coach. “It doesn’t work.”

“Reaper coming”

Back at Becker, as the Overwatch players are getting pumped for their match against Alfred State Esports, coach Nick “Shifty” Travis is becoming increasingly, well, shifty. Pacing back and forth, he gives a few final orders. “Mid-fight is when we get punished,” he says. “Focus up! Look for opportunities.”

“Mic check,” someone says, as team members fiddle with their HyperX headsets.

“Hype it up! This is what we practiced for.” Shifty settles in front of his laptop. “Two seconds! Make it happen! Let’s go!”

The murmur of frantic keystrokes and mouse-clicks rises to a clattering crescendo. A coded chatter percolates among the players:

“Reaper coming.”

“Inside, inside!”

“Sig! Sig!”

“Flank.”

“Behind you!”

“Mei! Mei!”

Overwatch is a fast-paced team game. Each player chooses from among 30 heroes to play, all cartoonish mash-up takes on pop-culture genre staples — Doomfist, a cybernetic dude armed with a hand cannon; Sigma (or “Sig”), an astrophysicist who can control gravity; Mei, a climatologist who wields weather-altering devices; Reaper, a black-robed horror creep. Heroes do battle, six on six, across 25 richly rendered fictionalized environments called “maps” — a futuristic Paris, a lunar colony, an Egyptian temple, a Greek island, downtown Hollywood. Each map has its own objectives and win conditions, such as holding a position or escorting a payload. To win a match, a team needs to get the upper hand on two out of three maps.

“Back up!”

“Reaper! Reaper! Reaper!”

“Drop drop drop!”

“I can’t touch …”

As heroes scramble from room to room, or pop out from behind columns and walls providing cover, players see the action from their own points of view. Statistics on each player and kaleidoscopic bursts of enemy fire flash across the screen.

But Becker is outmatched, unable to successfully deliver its payload. After a mere five minutes, the first skirmish is over. Alfred State is the victor. As the Becker team regroups before the next map, Shifty debriefs. “We started off strong. We got very, very sleepy later on.” He’s not pleased. “Wake up! Learn from your mistakes now and execute better, now. You know what you did wrong. Fix it.”

If Shifty sounds a lot like a football coach, it’s because he’s using many of the same motivational techniques. Indeed, the benefits of esports I’d heard about resemble the ones attributed to traditional team sports: They teach discipline, the value of planning and hard work, and how to cooperate to reach a common goal. For many young people, esports are taking the place of physical sports in teaching these values.

“The idea of the neighborhood pickup game isn’t what it used to be,” said Chad Weeden, director of Rochester Institute of Technology Esports. Many kids are learning social interaction — “how to have disagreements with each other, how to resolve those disagreements” — via video games, he told me. Parents want that interaction to be more curated and guided.

Weeden told a story of one father he met, whose teenager was not a traditional athlete. “He’s really into his games, but he’s just in his room all the time,” Weeden recalled the father saying. “I want him to be part of a team.”

To Weeden’s mind, RIT’s esports participants absorb lessons in small group communication, the art of winning and losing, and leadership (especially for the “shot caller,” a kind of quarterback in Overwatch). The skill of staying calm and performing well in a big game, onstage in front of five or 500 people, transfers well to working under pressure in real life. RIT’s 15 varsity squads take esports a step further, mimicking professional team management, with students as managers, coaches, captains, and analysts. They even have team jerseys.

In remote communities, like the Matanuska-Susitna Valley in south-central Alaska, esports can benefit education and the community. The Matanuska Telephone Association, the local telecommunications service provider, has introduced a statewide esports program for 35 high schools and organized the largest esports event in Alaska, the eUnlimited tournament. By integrating lessons and skills from esports into their curricula, schools are “boosting students’ engagement in technology, academic achievement, and connections to their communities,” according to MTA’s public relations manager, Jessica Gilbert. Like other extracurricular activities, Gilbert says, esports also “provide a reason to come to school.”

Experts also talk about the benefits of learning sportsmanship. In esports, as in traditional sports, athletes exhibit a range of good and bad behavior, including notorious cases of cheating and acting out. Possible infractions can include match fixing or point shaving; hiring a more skilled gamer to use a less-skilled player’s account; teaming up to play solo games; and using “hacks,” like “aim bots,” to alter game mechanics to favor a player.

Just as important is esports’ unwritten, in-game code of conduct. It’s good manners to text “GLHF” (good luck have fun) before a game, and at the end to text “GG” (good game) or “GGWP” (good game well played). “[It’s] the equivalent of lining up and shaking hands,” says Becker player Matt Stratoti. Players should resist the temptation to trash-talk, showboat, harass, or distract opponents. “No texting in game, ‘Ha ha, you suck.’ That is a ban-able offense,” Stratoti says. He also advises not to be “toxic to your own teammates” or to “get tilted,” which means losing control due to anger. Though “taunting” a dead avatar — crouching or dancing over it — is sometimes tolerated or encouraged in casual play, it’s bad news in organized games.

Collegiate esports can still feel like “the Wild West,” said Becker’s Timothy Loew. But thanks to these written and unwritten rules, and increased institutional oversight and professionalization, that landscape is being tamed. More people — parents, educators, college administrators — seem open to the idea of competitive gaming. “Nowadays,” says Harrisburg University’s Joemeister, “if your kid can earn a full-ride scholarship to a college for playing video games, it shouldn’t be a hard sell for parents.”

For Stratoti, backlash from parents wasn’t a problem: his mother was supportive of the many hours he’d spent gaming as a teenager. He had played video games like Platoon in high school, and later Paladin and Overwatch, and also made board games. After a stint as a music education major at another college, he decided to transfer to Becker. On top of his varsity esports commitment, he’s studying in the game design program. “I’m doing this already,” he told me. “Why not make a career out of it?”

Stratoti’s teammate, C.J. Sharkey (screenname Firebird), says playing for Becker’s esports program has revealed a fresh perspective on being a team player. “Shifty has changed a lot how I play Overwatch,” he told me. “It’s all ‘us’ and not just ‘I,’ ‘you.’”

Training day

All this talk about the benefits of esports, and the vicarious thrill of watching Becker Blue meet its foes on fantasy fields of battle, has made me hungry to try the game myself — and test all of those theories about skill-building and teamwork. And as someone who played a mean Galaga in my day, I hold a tiny pixel of hope that I might convert my latent, 8-bit gaming prowess into Overwatch dominance. So I meet Coach Shifty for a personal coaching session.

He sits me down in front of a $4,000 computer in Becker’s esports lab and suggests I choose a hero named Soldier: 76. He’s armed with a heavy pulse rifle, helix rockets, and a “biotic emitter” that heals. Shifty tells me that nearly all serious Overwatch players use PCs, not consoles with controllers. So I get my fingers situated on the W, A, S, and D keys (to move around) and the mouse (to aim, look around, and fire).

Shifty launches the Practice Range, a safe map of a generic military outpost where I can try out my Soldier guy, practice some skills, and not get killed. I blow away a few hostile “training bots” that don’t shoot back. Baby steps.

“Each hero is a tool,” Shifty says in an encouraging way. “Which tool is the best for the situation, for the problem that you’re having?”

My problem is, I need to look down at the keyboard as I move and fire. I can barely keep my fingers on the right keys. So how can I possibly coordinate an attack while five other teammates bark commands into my ears?

Nonetheless, Shifty declares I’m ready for an actual mission with actual players, complete strangers, located somewhere across the universe of the internet. The map is called Route 66, a desert landscape with winding roads, canyon walls, and abandoned diners and gas stations.

“Enemies will be red. Your teammates will be blue,” Shifty reminds me. A panic rises in me. Or is that excitement?

The battle begins. Click click, boom boom.

“Always be aware of your health,” he says, looking over my shoulder. “You took some damage. Use your healing station. You also have rockets for right clicks.”

“They keep coming!” I cry.

“They re-spawn every 10 seconds when you kill them,” Shifty says. “You’re doing very well right now. But you’re shooting flat-footed. What that means is, when you see something to shoot, you forget you can move.”

I feel like a VHS cassette on “play” while the rest of the game is on “fast forward.” I bumble around and shoot helter-skelter. Yet I seem to be killing some red guys and healing up my teammates. For this map, despite my blundering, we taste victory.

“You won!” Shifty goes over my stats: I killed 12, inflicted 2,621 points of damage, died once, and handed out 662 healing points to teammates. His verdict? “Before you worry about the details of Overwatch, you’re going to have to get comfortable with the mouse and keyboard.”

“I’m sorry for being a 53-year-old nerd with bad-hand eye coordination,” I say.

“Don’t worry,” Shifty says. “This is what I do. I love to do this.”

Was Overwatch harder than I expected? Way harder. Perhaps my brain isn’t wired for that much input. As a middle-aged klutz with poor dexterity, I certainly don’t have the innate talent to excel in reflex-based video games. Sure, I could practice Overwatch for 10,000 hours, but a slower-paced strategy game, where my creativity and critical thinking might come into play, might be more my speed. I also must accept the possibility that esports stardom is destined for the young, like basketball stars who peak in their 20s and 30s.

Leaving my training after three games, I am passably good. Not 1981 good. Not good enough to enter my initials as one of the top 5 “Galactic Heroes.” After all, this is an entirely different galaxy. I’m not good enough to get a college scholarship. But with some more practice, I might be good enough to kick my nephews’ butts.

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Ethan Gilsdorf is a writer based in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.

 

Top photo of Maryville University students competing  in the League of Legends College Championship Game in 2017 by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images.

 

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