Marietta College adds eSports team

Sports are often used to celebrate strength, strategy and teamwork.

eSports, a virtual competition arena for which Marietta College is assembling teams of avid video gamers on the collegiate level, task players in similar modes of communication, strategy and teamwork.

“For me, eSports provides an outlet for competitiveness, especially when I get to play next to guys who share the same drive,” said Lucas Danford, 22, of Marietta, who is one of the first students on the college’s team. “Also, eSports provides gamers that aren’t into traditional sports that same exciting fan experience that they might have missed out on otherwise. eSports (is) slowly becoming mainstream for people outside of the gaming community (too and that’s) exciting because it gives us an opportunity to share our passion for the games.”

But how far off is the world depicted in Ernest Cline’s cult classic “Ready Player One” where whole lives are lived in virtual utopia with corporate sponsorships for video gamers and prize monies that pay for education and the food on the table?

“It’s definitely a possibility since we already have (virtual reality) technology and are starting to make strides there,” said Coach Matt Williamson, the first to lead Marietta College’s gaming students into a competitive arena. “But it’s not just move your mouse and hit some buttons. Even though you’re looking at a screen, you’re using other tools to communicate and strategize as a team.”

And now, with the term’s definition expanded past physical prowess, higher education institutions across the country are joining the trend, using it as a tool for recruiting and retention just like physical sports and other extracurricular offerings.

“It’s a billion-dollar industry and there are professional gamers where this is their full-time job,” said Williamson. “I can see the day where it becomes just as watched as pro-football and baseball.”

While Danford doesn’t necessarily see his future in professional gaming, he does have his own celebrities he looks up to in the industry, and he hopes to work in the gaming industry after graduation.

“I’m a big fan of a lot of older professional players,” he explained, noting League of Legends is currently on season 8 of the game. “Scarra, Dryus and Voyboy are my favorite retired pros, my favorite players who still play are Doublelift and Bjergsen.”

Marietta College announced its entry into the realm of eSports this fall with the application into the National Association of Collegiate eSports.

“And we’re upgrading a facility where they’re going to play,” said Tom Perry, vice president for communication and brand management. “It won’t be finished until next month but it will be in the Gathering Place.”

Renovations to the Gathering Place, at the corner of Butler and Seventh streets, include more than just a new coat of paint.

“The parallel between physical sports and this is that it’s really a team sport. The medium may be video games but it requires consistent practice, strategy and team play that just happens to take place in front of screens,” said Rick Smith, assistant professor of sports management and director of the new eSports program. “We’re adding the new hardware, the computers, desks and chairs and a dedicated internet line since these online games take a lot of capacity. Then we have been in touch with other schools about holding weekly scrimmages, too.”

Smith said the sizes of the teams will vary by game, with League of Legends, Overwatch, Counter Strike: Global Offensive all drawing interest currently.

“And we are trying to recruit more females, there are many that play already,” he added. “Across the campus we are trying to recruit more females in general and if we have the academic programs that are of interest and then add this retention tool we could better achieve that.”

Danford said the group play aspect encouraged is about more than simply sitting in front of a set of screens together.

“The League of Legends (game) is a five-versus-five game so when you’re playing with organized teams rather than 10 solo players split randomly into teams there’s a lot less room for error,” he explained. “You have to figure out what went wrong and how to improve as a team for the next match but you also have to figure out how to keep tension from rising between teammates after a loss just like any other team sport.”

That’s a point echoed by Williamson, who is excited to build camaraderie in students who may not have found their niche yet on campus.

“This may be their thing to grab hold of and they’ll make friends that outlast their time at the college,” he said. “You already see that in the other sports teams.”

He said at the close of each practice he has each student ask themselves three questions, regardless of which aspect of the game play they were honing that day.

“I ask what went well.. what did not go well… but the biggest is what can you do to improve?” Williamson explained. “My philosophy is to aim for continuous improvement. Even if you’re the best there’s always something you can improve on, whether it be communication or some other aspect of strategy to make you a better player or a better teammate.”

At a glance:

• Marietta College is introducing eSports to its extracurricular offerings.

• The college has applied for entry into the National Association of Collegiate eSports.

• Students in the program will be held to the same academic standards as traditional athletes.

• The college is renovating space in the Gathering Place for team practices.

Source: Rick Smith, director of the new eSports program.


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