The world of esports can seem like a “Wild West” to most people, said Ivan Alizakhov, a student and player at the University of St. Thomas.

Unlike the traditional physical sports of football and basketball, eSports are played on a video game console or computer and involve individuals or teams competing against each other in a multiplayer competition on a screen. Esport doesn’t enjoy a century of dedicated fans or accessibility as a real sport. And for someone who’s never played or watched an esports game, the screen can feel cluttered and chaotic, Mack said.

“It’s a little harder to see (esports) skills and see what’s cool about it,” Alizakhov said, especially when you watch all the skills happen on one screen.

Yet colleges like the University of St. Thomas in Houston take eSports seriously.

The private Catholic university launched an esports coach minor this fall and plans to expand its program with more programs, said St. Thomas president Richard Ludwick. People who didn’t grow up playing esports can study it and get “an academic understanding of what the world is becoming,” he said.

The college revamped part of its library into an esports facility, with three 70-inch screen TVs and 13 game stations, and launched its first college team, specifically for the Overwatch game. Overwatch is a multiplayer shooter set on a near-future Earth and produced by Blizzard Entertainment, the company that makes several popular video games, including World of Warcraft and Heroes of the Sun.

Other schools, including public high schools, have shown a similar interest in the video game industry.

Rice University offers a certificate program in esports management through its Glasscock School of Continuing Studies and a hobby club that can compete against other colleges across the country.

The Southwestern Athletic Conference, which brings together several historically black colleges and universities including Prairie View A&M and Texas Southern Universities, launched its league registration last fall to create an esports platform across Canada. the conference. And the University of Houston-Downtown has several college clubs that allow students to come together and participate in college competitions.

Educators from local and state colleges and high schools have formed the Texas Scholastic Esports Federation to provide resources, coaching, and clinics. Its board of directors includes members representing the ISDs of Galveston, Houston, Aldine and Dallas, among others.

“The Texas Scholastic Esports Federation is a community of educators who believe esports can be an accessible, inclusive and equitable path to college, career, and military preparation for all Texas students,” according to the website. organisation.

Regional growth is well synchronized with the growth of the professional gaming industry, which consists of high school, college and professional players.

Esports is expected to have more audiences than any sport other than the NFL this year, according to a study by technology consultancy Activate. The global live streaming audience for games is expected to reach 728.8 million, and esports revenue is expected to reach $ 1.08 billion this year, a 14% increase from 2020.

Houston is also seen as a hub – home to esports tournament and events company Mainline and the Houston Outlaws, a professional Overwatch team.

Blizzard Entertainment, owner of Overwatch, noted that its audience for a tournament in 2020 has more than doubled from the previous year, and colleges are trying to keep pace with leagues, competitions and college-focused programs. and the science behind the gaming industry and its players.

But college esports programming and teams are still in development, and sometimes their processes don’t look like typical athletic departments.

For example, the St. Thomas Celts team was built through word of mouth, recommendations, reputation and rank, say its players.

Ryan Gandee, 18, and Daniel Ibrahim, 21 – the most experienced players on the Celts squad – said they were only recruited after announcing their esports skills, ranking in the Top 500 and their interest on social media while looking for a collegiate team.

Neither has had to participate in trials, and all members have been offered scholarships, which sends a message to students across the country who want to turn a hobby into an opportunity. .

“This is the main reason I came here,” said Gandee. “My plan was to go to community college, but this opportunity came up at the last minute. “

On its esports program site, the University of St. Thomas notes that it “teaches students how to build careers in the esports industry” with potential careers in broadcasting, entrepreneurship, coaching. esport, esport law and contract management, event management, sales, social media and talent management. He also notes the average salary of $ 62,237 for an esports coach in Houston, per ZipRecruiter.

And although playing competitive esports in college might not be considered a physical sport, it’s more involved and complicated than you might think, St. Thomas players say.

There is strategy, which involves effective communication between team members, critical thinking, and the physical subtlety of the game.

Celtic freshman Andrew Mack, who plays a supporting role in Overwatch, for example, has a computer more physically spaced apart to accommodate his longer arms, while ergonomics-obsessed Alizakhov, has one in constant evolution.

With over 40 mice and multiple mouse pads and keyboards, Alizakhov is known to often change the level of his monitor and the length of his desk to test what works best for his body.

“There is a certain way of positioning your body to play better,” said Alizakhov, 18.

Still, every player feels like they are struggling with the negative connotation of the word “gamer,” which can often make people think of a scoreless, anti-social, and gambling-obsessed player who rarely leaves their bedroom.

For Mack, “player” is almost a derogatory term that oversimplifies what they do.

“People hear ‘gamer’ and think, ‘Oh, you playing games in your windowless mother’s basement? Said Alizakhov. And while Alizakhov admits that he typically plays 40 to 50 hours of gaming per week, he said competitive college esports players differ from everyday players.

“What separates us from the causal players is that there’s a goal you have in mind,” said Mack, a business major, which means it’s not always pleasant or easy.

Gamers balance their studies with gambling, and can often be found walking from their homes to the college rec room to practice, actively improve their game, and study other gamers.

So far, the team have only played together consistently for about a month, but already they have gained a growing reputation. Their bond is also growing. In some ways, this has been inevitable. They play and live together. – a setup that is a more popular tradition in the oriental game world, Ibrahim said.

In Korea, the gaming capital of the world, gambling dens are seen as a tax-efficient arrangement that allows a team to live together and focus on competing, training and winning.

Ibrahim, 21, said he saw several competitive and top-tier esports teams who live separately go their separate ways within months due to lack of financial support, disappointment after playing league games or in due to players leaving teams for better opportunities.

The St. Thomas team admits that the pressure and the ultimate desire to win the National Collegiate Championship can make it difficult to just “stand up” and physically step away from the game while training.

“At the pro level, there is this stress for excellence,” said Alizakhov.

“It’s always in your head that if you don’t get better, you get worse,” Ibrahim said.

But St. Thomas’ official first esports team is confident in their game, and they think they are slowly gaining more respect for their craft, especially among their peers, who have occasionally stopped them on campus to congratulate them. of their recent victories.

The group beat the University of Texas-Dallas team in a competition in July and recently played in Harrisburg, Pa. Against several schools. With a 2-2 record, they will take part in Overwatch Collegiate Homecoming 2021, an online tournament that runs from October 1 through the finals in December.

Mack said his parents struggled to understand what he was doing, but still encouraged him. After a match he remembered them saying, “I know you won, but I don’t know how.”

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