Apr 04, 2016

UT-Austin Gamers Vie for Legitimacy in Collegiate Esports

Reporting Texas

The players practice together about 10 hours each week, and an additional 20-30 hours a week on their own.

UT League players practise together about 10 hours each week, and an additional 20-30 hours a week on their own. Aaron Schnautz/Reporting Texas

The last time UT-Austin faced Texas A&M on the football field, in 2011, nearly 78,000 fans packed Kyle Field to watch the Longhorns kick the winning field goal as time expired. How times have changed. With the classic football rivalry now in limbo, a different type of competition between the two schools took place in mid-February – with some 63,000 fans watching the two schools duke it out. But in this face-off, both teams played at home.

At tables in fluorescent-lit rooms a hundred miles apart, five students from each school stared at computer screens, communicating through headsets and furiously clicking away, in a digital matchup of League of Legends, a multiplayer online PC game. Nearly 70 million people worldwide play the game each month in a cyber-competition every bit as intense as any traditional gridiron duel. In the February game, A&M swept the best-of-three matchup against the UT League team.

“The pressure comes from knowing we’re representing the school in a national tournament,” said David Willis, 19, an undecided freshman from Austin who is a starting member of UT-Austin’s six-member League team.

Competitive gaming, which requires fast fingers and faster thinking, has quickly gained momentum on college campuses across the country in recent years right along with the blistering popularity of esports themselves. This year, as a sign of that growth, League of Legends’ developer, Riot Games, is sponsoring the North American Collegiate Championships (NACC), a four-month competition featuring more than 500 colleges in the U.S. and Canada playing for up to $30,000 per player in scholarship money. UT-Austin is one of 32 teams that qualified for the regular season, earning each of its players a $1,000 scholarship. Reaching the playoffs as one of the top 16 teams – which UT accomplished at the end of February on the last week of the regular season – doubled that total. A first-round loss, again to Texas A&M, ended the season for the Longhorns. Had they advanced, the value of the scholarship would have continued to increase.

But here’s the esports Catch-22. While scholarship prizes can be sweet, the vast majority of schools don’t support their competitive gamers in any significant way. At UT-Austin, for example, the university doesn’t yet recognize the team, not even as a club sport. Said Victor Wattigny, a biomedical engineering junior from Wichita Falls and the team’s coach: “We’ve even had trouble talking with [UT’s] trademark office [to get] rights to the Longhorn to use for our logo… As far as the university is concerned, we don’t really exist.”

This comes at a time when the popularity of competitive gaming at the professional level is hitting its stride. The website E-Sports Earnings, which tracks and logs payouts for esports tournaments around the world, found that last year game company sponsors paid out more than $65 million in prize money. There were 104 esports pros who cashed in big, winning more than $100,000 each. Eleven of them earned $1 million or more.

Those numbers are only likely to grow. Revenue for esports is expected to reach $2 billion by 2018, as prominent celebrities and athletes continue to invest. Three-time NBA champion Rick Fox purchased his own esports team in December (aptly named Echo Fox). And on March 17, NRG Esports – owned by NBA’s Sacramento Kings co-owner Andrew Miller – announced three new investors: Chicago White Sox shortstop Jimmy Rollins, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez and four-time NBA champion and current TV analyst Shaquille O’Neal.

Even ESPN has even got involved, featuring an esports section on its website and airing a collegiate Heroes of the Storm esports tournament last April. Major brands such as Coca-Cola, Intel and Red Bull are pouring millions of dollars into sponsorships.

Could universities and colleges be missing out on an opportunity to be ahead of the curve? By supporting esports teams on campus for competitions like the NACC and others, Jared Wynne of The Daily Dot, an Austin-based online newspaper with extensive esports coverage, believes universities have the potential to lead the way – if they are willing to step up.

“College campuses are prime locations for the development of esports,” Wynne said. “Younger generations tend to lack the bias against competitive gaming that older generations might have because they grew up with games as a part of their lives. Those who compete at a young age look at League of Legends or [another popular game] Counter-Strike much the same way they look at baseball or basketball.”

Only a handful of universities are currently pioneering active sponsorship of competitive gaming. Robert Morris University Illinois was the first university to bring esports into its athletic program, awarding 50-percent scholarships to League of Legends players beginning in fall of 2014. Meanwhile, the school invested $100,000 in a high-tech gaming room, complete with the newest computers and equipment.

That investment appears to have paid dividends. In 2015, RMU coach Ferris Ganzman guided the Eagles to an NACC runner-up finish, losing the championship to the University of British Columbia. One of Ganzman’s first recruits, Adrian Ma, got an offer during his first semester to turn pro, and the Houston native now plays for Immortals, the top team in North America’s League Championship Series (LCS) this season.

“I very strongly believe that the ability for these players to obtain scholarships to cover the majority of school costs, and having infrastructures set up that can really help these young adults grow and prepare mentally for the LCS, is huge,” Ganzman said.

Following RMU’s lead, four other U.S. schools now offer athletic scholarships for esports players: University of Pikeville in Pikeville, Kentucky; Maryville University in St. Louis; Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas; and Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri. These aren’t large universities, though: the five private schools combine to have 25,000 undergraduate students – significantly less than the nearly 40,000 undergrads on the UT-Austin campus.

As for an esports division in the Longhorns athletics office, it doesn’t appear to be on the horizon. “Texas is not planning additions to its men’s or women’s sports programs at this time,” UT-Austin’s women’s athletic director Chris Plonsky, speaking on behalf of UT athletics, told Reporting Texas via email.

Nonetheless, UT-Austin’s informal esports program has produced its own star players. Alan Nguyen, who helped start the UT League team in 2011 and is known to fans as “KiWiKiD”, was offered a spot on Team Dignitas, another LCS team, in 2013, and left school early to pursue his professional dream. And it’s players like Nguyen who are inspiring a new wave of collegiate gamers hoping to make a career out of playing video games.

“My personal goal is to go professional and at least spend a season playing professionally,” said first-year student and gamer Willis. “If I get the opportunity to go pro before I finish my four years of college, I’ll likely … delay finishing my degree for a year or two.”

For now, however, it’s anybody’s guess how long it will take for more universities to support the esports movement.

“Once some colleges start to realize, like some big brands have, that esports is a place that is growing and that there’s profit here, that’ll be a big step,” Wattigny said. “It’s gonna take either some big university going out there and saying, ‘We can do this,’ or numbers coming out showing that there is profit, to really get the attention of the athletic department.”

Having reported on the rise of esports for nearly two years at The Daily Dot, Wynne said university administrators will have to pay attention, as championship finals continue to sell out major U.S. arenas. “The numbers can only be ignored for so long,” he said.

Teammate and UT-Austin computer science major Vincent Wu, 20, of Plano, believes that professional gamers someday will become as commonplace as professional football or basketball players.

“Originally, sports became popular because it was a competitive activity that was accessible to nearly everybody,” Wu said. “Every kid could get a ball, and two posts in the ground was as good a net as any. Now… computers are just as accessible.”