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Esports Here and Now

Josh Brown '22

Features Editor

“Esports? What is that? What do y’all do?” and “It’s just playing video games, right?” are all questions I get when I say I’m in the esports program here on campus; so before I talk about it, I should explain esports. Esports consists of organized competitions of multiplayer video games between opposing players or teams of players. Video games are a common hobby among our generation. Just as the NBA makes a profession out of basketball, so does esports make a profession out of gaming. Esports now has millions of viewers and dedicated fans, multimillion dollar gaming events, and is an industry worth more than $180 billion.

Esports started small and has grown exponentially since. It turns out you can combine a beloved pastime, a highly competitive environment, and a platform through which fans can watch and engage directly, and boom, you have a multibillion dollar industry. While gaming competitions have been a staple since the first multiplayer games, “esports” is widely agreed to have started in 1997, at an event called Red Annihilation. This tournament of one-on-one “Quake” matches was hosted at E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) by the company behind the game, and the grand prize, a Ferrari 328GTS, was won by Dennis “Thresh” Fong. The matches streamed to an online audience of viewers, making this both a baby step for esports and also for streaming them - a lifelong partnership now decades in the making.

Today, esports covers far more than just “Quake,” and is watched by far more than a few hundred viewers. Notable collegiate level circuits include Tespa, NAC Esports, Collegiate Starleague, and ECAC. Most esports events are streamed live on the streaming platform Twitch, where viewers can watch and engage with each other and stream moderators in a live chat (the 2019 Overwatch League Grand Finals averaged 1.12 million viewers across its streaming platforms).

Where does R-MC fit in this picture? R-MC has its own esports program with teams for 6 of the leading esport games: “Counter Strike: Global Offensive," “Fortnite," “Hearthstone," “Overwatch," “Rocket League," and “League of Legends.” Currently it has 34 on-scholarship esports athletes, all of whom practice 6+ hours per week, not including official games, have mandatory gym and study hall hours each week, and maintain at least 2.0 averages. And all that practice yields results: the Hearthstone team has beaten Yale before, Rocket league has placed 36th out of 250 teams across the nation, and Fortnite has placed 31st out of 250 teams. The program’s athletes are also highly involved students; some are Captains, Resident Assistants, tutors, baseball players, debate society members, theater students, and involved in many other extra curriculars. The program even has its own dedicated “arena” on campus. Located on the mezzanine level of Brock Commons, the esports arena is open 24/7 for esports athletes, houses 16 state-of the-art gaming computers, a flat screen TV and couch for reviewing gameplay, and its own dedicated server with near-zero lag.

R-MC’s esports program began officially in 2018, and has grown exponentially. I sat down with Richard “RavagerRich” Banach to discuss the origins of our school’s esports program. Richard is a current senior, PolySci major, international studies minor, RA, and the captain of the school’s “League of Legends” team. As he told me, esports on campus began as simply a small League of Legends club, which he and a few friends started. In only the first year of the club, it was competing in national tournaments, and Richard organized a Virginia-wide tournament that included VCU and UR as competitors. After the club had proven there was potential for competitive play on campus, the club’s staff advisor, Dean McGhee, helped to “take it to the next level." Dean McGhee would make esports a passion project of his, dedicating countless personal hours to securing sponsorships, recruiting new athletes, adding teams and games, and eventually getting the arena made to house esports.

On the growth of the program, Richard said, “I definitely did not think this was going to grow into what it is today… [I] did not think it would be propped up so quickly here.” The rapid growth of the program is perhaps best shown with the arrival of Alex Gunnerson, R-MC’s Director of Esports. Hired late last fall semester, and at only 25 years old, Alex is one of the youngest, full-time esports directors in the nation. He oversees practices and games, recruiting, securing sponsorships, running streams, holding esports meetings, and with coaching and gameplay review for some of the sports. As he told me: “I live and breathe this job. I love it, and I’m so fortunate.” He grew up playing video games as a child, favoring games with a competitive aspect like “Super Smash Bros.” and “League of Legends," which eventually grew into a passion in college. He attended Miami University, and much like Richard, was part of a “League of Legends” club. In his senior year, as captain, he turned it into an official, varsity program, and secured an arena with about 8 computers on their campus. With a story that closely resembles that of R-MC, he remarked that it was amazing we already have an esports program because we’re a “super small liberal arts school competing against schools ten time our size and holding our own." Richard would seem to agree: “Nationally speaking, I think our school is very ahead of the curve. A lot of other schools don’t have rooms or coaches.”

Another impressive aspect of the esports program is the strong recruiting program and recruit interaction. Something compelling about recruitment for esports, unlike other organizations on cam

pus, is the opportunity for recruits to interact directly with current student athletes via the program’s Discord (a voice & text chat program with features similar to Skype). Through Discord, recruits can talk to athletes about their favorite games, talk with them via voice channels, and even play alongside our athletes. Like any other sports organization, R-MC scouts out talented highschool level gamers, and invites them to join the program’s Discord. Here they can ask questions of Alex and the athletes directly while considering coming here. The program (at the time of writing) currently has 48 active recruits, with 5 who have already declared. Alex’s goal is to get 12 declared students by the end of this year and is currently on track to do so. On interacting with recruits on Discord, Alex said, “We’re a community, we’re a family, [as a recruit] you come in with a group of friends before you ever set foot on campus.”

The future of esports on campus at R-MC is bright and promising. Richard hopes, “That it reaches the level of [recognition] as a college athletic competition.” Alex hopes that “the program grows into more games and more students. I want... it [to become] a big spectator sport where people want to come see it.” And, if you want to, you can watch R-MC Esports shine at twitch.tv/rmcesports

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