Esports at Cornell: The Online Sports Revolution Isn’t Ready for College Just Yet

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Updated: May 10, 2016

It’s gaining ground, selling out arenas, and attracting big time viewership. You can play fantasy games. It’s on ESPN. It’s got legions of fans. It’s international and cross cultural. You can gamble on it.

What am I talking about? Esports, of course.

It wasn’t so long ago that I thought the concept of “esports” was a big joke. To me, they were just watching people playing video games. However, one day I stumbled across an ESPN3 broadcast of the “grand finals” for a popular computer game, Defense Of The Ancients. I was morbidly curious, as I thought, ‘how could their be a video game on ESPN? How silly is this?’

I decided to tune-in, and to my ignorant amazement, I was met with a relatively slick broadcast featuring a polished and professional announcing crew breathlessly calling the action that was completely undecipherable to me. I couldn’t have been more bemused, watching a crowd of ten thousand strong spectators reacting to the happenings of a computer game. Then, I realized the winning team took home a million dollar prize.

Maybe esports were bigger than I thought.

Esports had been comfortably out of sight for years, hidden away in their niche. Your average hardcore (or casual) sports fan had no danger of unintentionally running into esports coverage. Now, it’s showtime, and if you don’t believe me, you already missed it. Get with with the times!

Highlights of esports going mainstream include Utah Jazz star Gordon Hayward opining about his love of esports in the Players Tribune, ESPN broadcasting esports (check out espn.go.com/esports/), SBnation covering them (with a devoted blog, The Rift Herald), and League of Legends appearing on an NBA on TNT broadcast. The most popular esport in the world, League of Legends (also known as LoL), is catching fire. Esports as a whole is very attractive to investors, having grown over 20% annually since 2012.  Maybe the most striking fact of all is that the biggest League matchup of 2015 got a larger worldwide viewership than the NBA finals.

Cornell, in fact, actually has several League of Legends teams. In order to find out more, I talked to their best squad, the “A-Team.” True to form, all the members of the Cornell A-Team were computer science majors and your stereotypical gamer — nerdy and slightly awkward. They echoed most of the same sentiment I had heard before and were cautious in using the word “sport” to describe their game. In addition, none of them followed traditional sports.

The Cornell players have been playing for years and emphasized the fact that their team is not “super serious.” Instead, it is more of a club team. When they practice, maybe once or twice a week, they stay in their rooms and communicate over the computer. They just play alone in their rooms. For practice. Every sport has got to start somewhere, right?

The Cornell team was one game away from qualifying for the biggest tournament in college — the North American Collegiate Championship (NACC), where the top 32 collegiate teams square off. This would have represented a very significant accomplishment, but they came up short. Despite this unfortunate result, the NACC is always the goal. It’s widely broadcasted, people care about it, and there’s a monetary prize, just like all other sports.

However, something else did pique my interest. Cornell’s League team was routed by Robert Morris University recently. At the surface level, that’s not so interesting, yet what’s worth examining is that Robert Morris offers scholarships for League of Legends, on top of featuring scouts and coaches for their squad. Is the Robert Morris model the future? In ten years will every college offer scholarships for esports? Will we be hearing about how SEC esports are the best? Will the Iron Bowl of esports ever surpass the football version? Maybe. It will certainly take some time.

Right now, collegiate esports aren’t especially attractive to most players. If a participant is good enough to get a scholarship or attention, they probably harbor pro aspirations. Big time collegiate esports are populated by one-and-done players, and as soon as they get the chance, they’ll forgo their education to go professional. In other words, it’s just a means to an end, so it’s not helping students get degrees. Collegiate esports also aren’t established or entrenched enough, or at least not yet, but it’s inevitable that college esports will become huge because these games are already just too popular.

At the moment, collegiate esports feels very thrown together, not exactly top level competition. A group of guys doing something they enjoy, and hey, why don’t they compete while we’re at it?

For some tournaments, there isn’t even a verification process. Riot just takes you for your word that you are students since it’s more of a social thing, as the Cornell leaguers even thought it was a good way to make friends. One of them played fantasy League of Legends and was an avid fan of another popular esports game, Hearthstone. They are truly closer to fans than athletes. A lot closer

But what about the other side — the actual pros?

Steve Arhancet, Co-CEO of esports’ “Team Liquid,” one of the biggest groups in the world, told me via email that, “most of the athletes who compete in esports are prodigies in their own regard. Most are intelligent, have high IQ’s, perfect SAT scores, [and] they type at 250 [words per minute].”

Steve has the task of taking young men and turning them into bona fide Team Liquid pros. It’s a rigorous preparation, as Steve explains, “It’s 6 days a week with one day off. They have [training] in the morning, film,

review, morning coach analysis/kick off, scrim set for three hours, break, lunch, another scrim set for three hours, dod review and then solo queue. The schedule changes a bit for competitive days.” Steve stressed how talented his guys were. Those guys are athletes (of some sort), members of an exclusive group of elites of a game played by millions.  

Cornell has a retired professional gamer, a former pro Halo player, among its student body, Jordan Dotzel. Although he is a computer science major as well, Jordan is a lot closer to the athlete side of the spectrum. Growing up, he was a good athlete, naturally competitive, and always one of the best players on his baseball team. Jordan quickly became immersed in the world of first person shooters and soon started winning online competitions and tournaments. After that, he move onto winning local tournaments and eventually climbed his way to the combine of Major League Gaming.

Despite only being a junior, Jordan’s pro gaming life is already behind him. He excelled throughout high school, benefiting from an excess of free time. Jordan, known by his tag “AmishAcorns,” devoted as much time as he could to Halo. He became a student of the game and prided himself on his mental game rather than accuracy or reflexes. When Jordan emerged as one of the top players in the world, cracking the elite few dozen, he was officially deemed a “pro.” This next part will sound remarkably similar to any other sport: Jordan became a member of a pro team club, traveling and competing across the U.S. He gained sponsorships and fans, honing his skills nearly 24/7, yet Jordan’s career came to an end when he decided to prioritize academics.

Jordan told me console games and shooters have tended to attract a different breed of esports athletes. They are generally, well, “bros” —  more typical, hyper competitive atheltes. Some care a lot about their fitness and pride themselves on it. Jordan found the world of shooters more compelling and fitting. The so-called “athletes” actually looked and behaved like real sports stars. Despite this fact, the popularity of shooters lags behind computer games like League.

So what have I learned from my foray? Despite all the differences to traditional sports, esports seem to make sense to their fans. Yes, the athletes tend to skew nerdy and frail, and yes, guys are just playing video games, but it just appears to work. It is 2016, so, to so many millennials, it’s only logical that athletics follows the digital revolution. It’s easy for them to accept that athletes can reside behind keyboards. Avid fans have no qualms about choosing an esports squad to support. Just make sure you pick your esports team sooner rather than later, or you’ll be labelled a “bandwagoner.”

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