It’s game time. The University of Washington versus Tennessee. Win or go home.
Bryan McCarthy has spent most of his 20 years playing soccer, and these moments of repose before a big match—the pacing, the team pep talks, the obsessive last-minute strategizing—never get old. He knows his team is ready. He knows his family is watching on ESPN. Now it’s time to make good on the work it’s taken to get to the fourth round of this tournament. He takes a few deep breaths, puts on a headset, and sits down in front of his bedroom computer.
“Good luck!” the family shouts from in front of the TV in the next room, as McCarthy—aka iShiny—logs on to play Heroes of the Storm in the fourth round of the national Heroes of the Dorm tournament.
McCarthy’s team, the Hot Dogs, are part of the Washington Gaming Association, a student-run governing body founded in May to unite UW campus’s gamers and esports groups under one banner. Yes, esports. Competitive video gaming not only exists, but it is a big-money spectator sport. Professional teams regularly sell out stadiums around the world, with hundreds of thousands more watching online. Valve Corporation’s Dota 2 tournament, the International, has packed KeyArena three years in a row. Last year, the winning team took home $6 million.
And over the last few years, game developers and third-party organizations have started running intercollegiate tournaments for first-person shooters, digital card games, and five-on-five titles—like League of Legends, Dota 2, and Heroes of the Storm—that combine intricate team strategy and combat. Campus groups like the WGA organize and represent teams for these tournaments. “It used to be chaos. Every team was doing their own thing,” says Kevin Hoang, who founded the WGA with League of Legends club president Jordan Houghton. “We brought every major gaming club to the table and gave them one point of contact.”
With more than 4,000 members—nearly 13 percent of UW’s undergraduate population—the WGA brokers sponsorships, organizes local matches, and, perhaps most notably, oversees recruitment. That’s right, some students, many of them international, actually enroll at UW in order to join a specific esports team. Bryan McCarthy turned down 13 soccer scholarships from Division II and III schools to play Heroes of the Storm for UW.
And yet the Washington Gaming Association isn’t officially affiliated with the University of Washington, something Hoang hopes to change in the near future. The idea isn’t to get the UW athletics department to recognize video games as a sanctioned sport like football, he says, but to offer esports players some of the resources given to traditional athletes. Mainly scholarships.
The UW athletics department is listening. Associate director Carter Henderson says that while the school is eager and interested in finding opportunities to piggyback esports onto the traditional athletics program, like scheduling esports matches in conjunction with athletic events, allotting school funds to the WGA is unrealistic.
In June, the UW athletics department projected a $14 million deficit for 2016, attributed to rising scholarship costs and declining attendance. If any money were made available to a new program, Henderson says the department will consider an NCAA-provided list of “emerging” sports, like rugby. Esports is not on that list.
Money was also the issue for the University of California–Irvine’s esports program, the first of its kind to offer scholarships and an on-campus facility for the school’s League of Legends players. Mark Deppe, a UCI staff member and founder of UCI eSports, came up with the idea in 2015 as part of a postgraduate business school project at another university. “The esports community is very plugged into corporate sponsorships, and money is flooding in,” he says, citing an event last year that filled the school’s basketball arena. It cost $100,000, most of it covered by sponsors.
Deppe approached the school not hat in hand but with a real opportunity. The League of Legends team on campus was already three-time national champions and had fans who traveled from tournament to tournament. The pitch to create an official UCI League of Legends team with money from the game developer and use the team as a tool to recruit students to UCI was a good deal for the university. Sponsors have even offered to pitch in scholarship money.
While Hoang contends that the WGA’s esports program will eventually pay for itself with sponsorships and tournament prizes, the group’s unwillingness to choose a single game like League of Legends and ostracize other players has perhaps cost them the major donations needed to make an attractive pitch to the school. But the WGA is still new, and in time Hoang believes UW will see it is in its best interest to join forces or be left behind.
Things do seem to be moving quickly with intercollegiate esports. In May, the Pac-12 Network announced it would sanction and begin broadcasting esports tournaments in the 2016–17 academic year with a plan similar to UW’s, to schedule live gaming events alongside, say, a women’s basketball tournament at KeyArena in order to bring attention to both. According to Erik Hardenbergh at the network, getting in on the esports ticket “just makes a lot of sense for us.”
While many details still need to be worked out, not least of which is the game the Pac-12 will choose as its official esport, the announcement marks a sea change in how seriously universities take these competitions. It’ll be up to individual schools to decide how and when to integrate student groups like the WGA into their programs, so that top-tier players like Bryan McCarthy and his Hot Dogs team—which lost to Tennessee—can return next year with more official backing from their school.
“We have the whole infrastructure set up,” says the WGA’s Jordan Houghton. “All we need is support and direction. We don’t want to be behind Utah or Oregon or UCLA.”