It’s a Tuesday night in the Willard Building on the Penn State campus. More than 30 students gather in a third-floor room to discuss plays, strategies, team rankings and practice times.
But the talk is not about football, basketball or hockey. It’s about electronic sports — e-sports — possibly the next big thing in college athletics.
E-sports players compete in video gaming. Games such as “League of Legends” and “Dota 2” (“Defense of the Ancients”) are the focus as players from all over the world participate in tournaments, live streams and interactive game play.
“The cool thing with e-sports is that, like any other sport, anyone with the proper equipment can play,” said Penn State senior Kyle Deckman, a member of PSUPeSports, the competitive video gaming club on campus. “If you have a soccer ball and a net, you can play soccer. If you have a mouse and a keyboard and Internet access, you can play e-sports.”
E-sports are typically played over the Internet, meaning participants can play where and when they want. Players can join ranked teams or play individually; they can play professionally or at an amateur level and can compete against anyone in the world.
In recent years, college students have revolutionized the gaming community, creating clubs and teams dedicated to e-sports. Penn State’s club was founded in 2011 and is growing rapidly. What started out as a club of 20 has grown to more than 100 active members.
“We have seven meetings a week, each focusing on a different game and division,” said junior and club president Josh Miller-Day. “It’s almost like each division is its own club, operating individually under the e-sports club as a whole.”
Divisions focus on specific games and are named after game titles; separate meetings are dedicated to discussion and playing time. The club has expanded beyond “League of Legends,” branching out to games such as “Super Smash Bros.,” “Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft,” “Counter-Strike” and “Street Fighter.” The games are a combination of genres, including first-person shooter, card games, fighting games and strategy-based game play.
Gaming goes global
The popularity of gaming does not stop at Penn State. TeSPA, an online organization that represents high school and collegiate e-sports athletes, stretches across five regions in the United States and Canada, each with its own chapters and regional coordinators.
“We provide a place where students who love gaming can go to find other players, new friends, and a place to belong, regardless of what games or genres they enjoy,” Chris Kelly, TeSPA’s full-time chief community officer, said in an e-mail.
With 135 members, Penn State’s club is the largest TeSPA chapter in the Northeast by official membership. It is the third-largest in North America, after the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Nevada, Reno.
TeSPA plays a role in hosting nationwide events, including two major tournaments, the Hearthstone Collegiate Open 1 and Open 2, streamed online by Twitch.tv, a live-stream website dedicated to gaming. It also organizes collegiate meet-ups, including conventions like BlizzCon and Major League Gaming.
Although these major tournaments are known nationwide, global events like Intel Extreme Masters, DreamHack, The International and League Championship Series are held in countries such as Taiwan and Sweden, often in large convention centers. The events are highly regarded in the gaming community and tickets go on sale months in advance.
There’s money in the game
As the e-sports community expands among students, officials at some universities have begun to acknowledge the phenomenon.
The New York Times reported on Dec. 9 that the University of Chicago created an official team last fall. According to ESPN, Robert Morris University in Chicago now awards “League of Legends” players scholarships of upwards of $19,000 per student to bring their gaming skills to the college.
“The universities which are offering sports scholarships for players on campus are taking it one step further,” said TeSPA’s Kelly. “(They’re) supporting the students in a more consistent basis, regardless of results.”
Some third-party tournaments, hosted by individual organizations and companies, already provide skilled players with monetary awards for winning. Kelly described a student-created event, Lone Star Clash, that included a prize pool of $10,000. Collegiate StarLeague, an intercollegiate gaming league, had a $9,000 prize pool split among three games during the spring 2014 season.
Penn State does not award e-sports club members scholarships, but the club does receive funding from the University Park Allocation Committee, which goes toward new gaming equipment, room space for game play and field trips.
Club president Miller-Day said he anticipates more university recognition will come with the growth of the organization.
“We want to move forward to the point where we can get scholarships,” he said. “We have more and more faculty on board. We have entire departments working to help us because they believe in e-sports and believe it should grow.”
The club is supported by the College of Communications and advised by Stephen Humphrey, a professor of management and research director for the Smeal College of Business.
Gaming gaining cred
How video gaming is presented to the public also is changing.
With the creation of online streaming platforms like Twitch.tv, tournaments and live streams are becoming more accessible to the public and more recognized by media outlets. In July, ESPN broadcast The International, the championship tournament for “Dota 2,” the first TV network to do so.
John Affleck, director of Penn State’s John Curley Center for Sports Journalism, does not anticipate e-sports fading from the media’s eye.
“Questions like, ‘Are video games a sport?’ become irrelevant from a media perspective,” Affleck said. “If enough people are watching it and enough people care about it, it’s news. So (sports broadcasters) have to pay attention to it.”
Affleck explained that including e-sports in regular sports broadcasting would not change the strategy of reporting.
“Ultimately, I don’t see the fact that it’s a video game being radically different than things that already exist,” he said. “People talk about chess, they talk about bridge. I can’t think of why this would be any different.”
The Curley Center has no plans to introduce e-sports coverage into the curriculum, Affleck said, but the faculty is working on introducing training sessions for student interested in covering e-sports.
Although professional outlets like ESPN have started to cover e-sports events, there are few professional reporters dedicated to e-sports. Affleck’s plans aim to change that.
Penn State senior Joseph Rudy said the gaming community itself is a reason why he plays.
“We are very ambitious,” Rudy said of those who play. “Everyone who is into e-sports wants to see it grow.”