Like many esports competitors, Walter Hernandez has been playing video games since he was old enough to pick up a controller. His passion grew even more when he got a Microsoft Xbox 360 more than a decade ago and began competing online against other people.
“When I played online for the first time, I thought this was really fun,” Hernandez said. “I noticed I started getting better than others. I loved the competitive side of gaming.”
Hernandez found an outlet to compete last fall when Lenoir-Rhyne launched a team for esports, which is video games played at a competitive level and often streamed online for spectators to watch. One of the games the Lenoir-Rhyne esports team plays is “Overwatch,” a first-person shooter that Hernandez has played since its launch in 2016.
Lenoir-Rhyne’s 16-person team primarily competes in three games: "Overwatch," "Super Smash Bros." and "Counter-Strike: Global Offensive." Each game has a roster of players and limits on how many can play at one time. And, as in traditional sports, some players specialize in certain games.
Clayton Schreiber helped to bring esports to Lenoir-Rhyne two years ago when he and other students wishing to start a team approached the university’s Student Government Association and requested funding. The SGA granted the esports team $12,000 to go toward gaming computers and a remodeled space in the Cromer Center on campus to practice and compete.
Schreiber, who is now the coach of the “Counter-Strike” team, said all the esports teams practice regularly, just as other sports teams do.
“[Practice] is the same as traditional sports,” Schreiber said. “We go over fundamentals. We go over strategies. We play other schools. The only difference is we aren’t actively playing on a field. We’re playing on a computer.”
Team member Andy Ngo said the players focus on improving their reaction time in practice, which largely happens by listening to the sounds in a game to determine how to react to an opponent’s attack.
“Building game knowledge is key as well,” Ngo said. “Understanding how to counter an attack and other mechanics helps.”
“A lot of time is spent on research before we can apply our knowledge in the game,” Hernandez added.
To compete in "Overwatch," the team plays in a collegiate league through Tespa, which organizes collegiate esports events and competitions across the county, Ngo said. The esports team competes seasonally against larger schools like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and University of California, Berkeley. Earlier this year, Lenoir-Rhyne advanced to the regional playoffs before losing to North Carolina State.
Additionally, the players may earn scholarship money through the league. Each of Lenoir-Rhyne’s "Overwatch" players earned $1,700 in scholarship money through Tespa, Ngo said.
The team is still searching for more ways to earn scholarships through playing esports. Lenoir-Rhyne does not offer scholarships for the esports players – yet.
Jonathan Rink, the team’s faculty adviser, said if the university sees the growth in student interest and participation, then it might start offering scholarships to esports players.
“We need to prove to the university that you can actually attract students based off esports and use it as a recruiting tool and a retention tool,” Rink said. “We want to offer things that are interesting to our students.”
Schreiber believes esports has a bright future.
“[Esports] will be larger than baseball, football, basketball,” Schreiber said. “Esports is going to be extraordinarily large and important across university campuses.”
That’s may not be hyperbole, either. According to Activate, a strategy and technology firm based in New York, esports viewership will be up to 84 million in the U.S. by 2021. That would pass Major League Baseball, which is estimated to have a viewership of 79 million that same year.
As for esports’ growth on campus, nearly 150 colleges and universities have varsity esports teams, according to the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE). That number was just seven when the organization formed in the summer of 2016.
The Lenoir-Rhyne team broadcasts their games through Twitch, a live online streaming site primarily used by gamers, at www.twitch.tv/lresports.
Lenoir-Rhyne esports players explain why they play esports:
Noah Rudy Rudisill: "To me, video games are a way to escape, and they close the gap between countries, cities, and people across the world. But also they are a way to satisfy my competitive nature, as well.
"Some of my best online buds are from other countries, and I feel I have learned from them in some way. And there is just something about getting together with a group of people who share the same interests you do, butting heads, laughing at jokes, and working your tails off together. Then showing up on Sunday/Saturday, whatever day, and pinning your wits against another team, of the same interests, and seeing who’s got what it takes to win. Who’s better?
"Point being, video games not only give us a world of fantasy to escape to, but also a real connection with those we play with. As the saying goes, there’s no I in team and true esports players understand that, and that is when you make those connections. Putting yourself and others into an atmosphere to succeed as a team to me is just an awesome experience."
Olivia Gause: "Esports is a great environment that allows me to focus on something other than the high-intensity graduate program I'm in for a few hours a week. It also helps to enforce skills such as teamwork that are vital for my career and many others."
Travis Leasure: "I play esports because it's a community of people who all enjoy video games like me. I, at one point, developed the habit of taking video games very seriously, and my teammates on the team all take it very seriously, as well. It gives me a place to interact with others who share the same views on video games."
Tyson Stevenson: "I have a very competitive personality. When I found out my friends played the same games I did, I was always the guy who said, 'I’m better,' or 'You can’t beat me, I’m a pro.' This led to me finding out that there was such a thing as video game tournaments, then eventually esports. With my competitive spirit and love for video games, finding esports was the best thing for me. Like a regular sports player, I always look at the very small chance at maybe eventually going pro being my dream occupation. So that always gives me something to strive for and continue participating in esports."
Andy Ngo: "I participate in esports because I love competition. It is a part of my family and my lifestyle. I use competition to push myself to do greater and better things than I would have by myself. And what is better than competing by playing videogames against other people? At a collegiate level? It's almost like a dream came true."