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Collegiate esports brings on Big Ten Conference competition



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Members of IU's esports team gather in Franklin Hall to attend the Winter Esports Expo. On the large screen in the Media Commons of Franklin Hall, professional esports teams from New York City and Los Angeles battle it out in the video game "Overwatch." Peter Talbot Buy Photos

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These first four keyboard letters are lit up on Jon Mundle’s Razer BlackWidow Chroma mechanical keyboard. Waves of color wash across it, synced up with his mouse. These keys are used to cast spells in the massively popular real-time strategy game, "League of Legends." 

Like basketball shoes or the perfect lacrosse stick, an esports player’s equipment is essential to their gameplay.

This year, all 14 schools in the Big Ten Conference will compete in a season of "League of Legends," according to a press release from the Big Ten Network. In the game, teams of five battle to destroy each others' Nexus, a structure at each team's base behind layers of defense. 

Esports are competitive multiplayer video games. The games are typically real-time strategy, first-person shooters or multiplayer online battle arenas. Often, the games require players to make split-second decisions, respond to new situations and communicate effectively between players in response to the other team.

“In esports, there are countless ways to actually respond because you’re not playing yourself, you’re playing a character in-game,” Mundle, a senior and captain of IU's League of Legends team said. “There’s a lot more options that you can do at any given moment. That’s what makes it so much more difficult.”

In the press release, BTN announced a new partnership with the developer of the game that would launch "League of Legends" seasons in 2018 and 2019.

Riot Games, the developer of "League of Legends," will also fund scholarships for each school in the amount of $35,000, to be evenly distributed among their rosters.  

Mundle self-ranks his team sixth out of the seven Eastern Conference teams in the Big Ten. Support from the University could mean hiring a coach, priority class scheduling and funding for private computer labs or performance-analysis programs.

"With more support from the University, players don't have to feel forced to quit the team because they don't have the time or if they have to dedicate time to other things,” Mundle said.

None of the schools in the Big Ten have established varsity programs for their esports teams.

“While we are certainly aware of its growing popularity on college campuses around the country, at this point in time, sponsoring a varsity esports team isn’t something that is on our radar,” a spokesperson for IU Athletics, John Decker, said in an email.

Esports are not like sports in the traditional sense. They don’t require much physical fitness or involve physically interacting with actual objects and new competitive games come out every year.

However, Mundle said that esports, like traditional sports, require effort, time and practice.

“People are thinking about sports in a really rigid way,” Mundle said. “I think what a sport actually is, is just a competitive activity.”

Mundle compared esports to golf. He said physical ability is not as important as technique and the mental aspect of the game.

Nick Littrell, a senior and captain of another esports team, Rocket League, has put around 1,200 hours into the game. He began playing a few weeks after its release in August 2015. His team practices together once every week.

Rocket League is a competitive online game much like soccer, except instead of players, the teams are made up of rocket-powered cars that can fly through the air.

Littrell does not consider esports to be sports, but said IU should still support its teams. Doing so would legitimize their team, and Littrell thinks this would help bring in more talent.

"It can be frustrating,” Littrell said. “I still see us as brand new and developing, so I'm hoping as we develop that more people can watch and that more people can get into it."

Unlike the NCAA, esports does not have a central governing body. TESPA, a collection of college clubs that promote gaming, oversees collegiate tournaments for Rocket League and Overwatch among other games. League of Legends’ game developer represents itself and puts on its own tournaments. Other organizations like the National Association of Collegiate eSports are trying to develop esports by organizing competition among varsity programs.

Littrell said this disorganization absolutely hinders them, but it hasn’t stopped IU’s Rocket League team from being successful. 

Last semester, the team played in the College Rocket League tournament through TESPA, going up against more than 100 other schools. After going undefeated in the first round and then continuing to perform well, IU broke into and through the Sweet 16 of the northern conference.

IU fell to the Gryphons from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada in the semi-finals of the northern conference, placing them among the top 16 teams in the nation. The winner of that game took home $1,200 in scholarship money. They were just one game away from playing Ohio State for a shot at playing in the National Finals.

This spring, however, TESPA will not be hosting a Rocket League Tournament.

“Seeing them not being able to pull through and not being able to put on a tournament for us makes a lot of us college students eager and looking for anybody else who's willing to throw any kind of scholarship money or any kind of organization into college esports,” Littrell said. “We are going to go wherever the money is."

Unlike traditional sports, new esports are coming out every year, making organization even more difficult. Littrell said this is a positive difference that keeps people interested.

"Something like basketball or football could just feel like the same thing, year after year, whereas with esports, you may have completely new interests, and you attract very new people every single year with new games,” Littrell said.

Littrell said during last semester’s College Rocket League Tournament, their stream had around 6,000 viewers at one point. The demand for esports coverage is there, but Littrell said that audience was likely made up of fans of competitive Rocket League rather than IU students.

Mundle’s team is still struggling to get wins, but he thinks they are improving. The team lost Saturday to top-ranked University of Michigan, 2-1. 

In the past, Mundle said his team has been abysmal against Michigan, but they’re doing better. He said the game was a lot closer than he expected.

“It comes mostly down to pride,” Mundle said. “We don’t want to troll in games against much better teams. We’ll do our best and accept our loss with grace, but for us it’s all about the amount of effort we put in and how we present ourselves.”

A previous version of this article did not mention when IU fell to the Gryphons in the College Rocket League tournament. The IU team made it through the Sweet 16 and onto the semi-finals of the northern conference, where the Gryphons took the round. The article has been updated for clarity. 

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