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The Esports Club and How Gaming Became a Huge Industry

By Susan Hoffman
Managing Editor, Edge

Over the last few decades, esports (electronic sports) has grown to become a multi-billion-dollar industry. Esports began with the development of home consoles in the early 1970s, followed by games with better and better technological capabilities. Over time, gamers formed leagues and competed in national or even international tournaments via online platforms such as Twitch and Discord.

In this sport, gamers can test their skills in different esports tournaments, including:

  • First-person shooter events
  • Multi-player online battle arena events
  • Fighter game events
  • Sports game events

Competitive esports continues to gain momentum in popularity, and consumers are paying attention. Colleges, universities, and our K-12 public school systems have an opportunity to educate and train diverse professionals who can impact multiple areas of our esports ecosystem. – Craig Skilling, Esports Club Program Coordinator

The Esports Club: An Interview with a Gaming Insider

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Ryan Laspina, the University’s senior marketing intelligence analyst and a member of the Esports Club. The Esports Club is working on developing a gaming culture at the University and building a community of distance learners and gamers.

First of all, what attracted you to esports?

Ryan: I’ve been a fan of video games since I was extremely young. I grew up in the early ‘90s, which was when I first started being aware of video games. This was back in the Super Nintendo and SEGA Genesis days.

I’ve been playing video games since the early ‘90s. Growing up, there was all types of competitive gameplay that we would do, but this was really before the advent of online gaming. So this would be more of what they call “LAN parties,” where you would have all your friends come over to one house. You would hook up all the different systems and different TVs, and everybody had to be in one location to be able to play in multiplayer competitive gaming.

We would do that a lot with games like Halo and Call of Duty. I guess around 2008-2009 is when we really started to see online gaming explode. So I was playing a lot of Halo and Call of Duty online, instead of doing it at a friend’s house with a bunch of people there. 

As I’ve gotten older and had more work responsibilities and family responsibilities, I haven’t been able to do as much competitive gaming as I would like. But I saw that there was an Esports Club here, and I joined it to re-spark that interest in competitive video gaming that had been there throughout most of my childhood.  

And I’m really happy that I did. I noticed that my skills had completely fallen off a cliff, so I can’t compete anymore with most of the games that they play. The first-person shooters like Halo and Call of Duty I’m not very good at, but still, I’d put my skills up against anybody in certain sports games. We’re trying to get some more interest in that – NBA games, that kind of stuff.

So yeah, I’d say I’ve been a fan of video games not since the introduction of video games – I’m not old enough to have been there – but really since that fourth or fifth generation, the Super Nintendo, the SEGA Genesis, playing locally. And then once multiplayer capabilities came out, that really took it to another level for me, getting those competitive juices going.

You mentioned first-person shooter games. What are the types of games you play in esports?

Ryan: So the biggest is definitely games like first-person shooters, but you also have battle royale games like Fortnite, where you need to be the last person standing. Technically, I guess you could say that Fortnite is a first-person shooter game, but it’s not as much about racking up the number of kills – it’s more about surviving the entire match.

Another big one is Rocket League, which I guess you could consider a sports game. You’re in these little cars, and you drive around trying to score soccer goals. It’s like playing soccer with remote-controlled cars.

There’s also Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter. Madden NFL and NBA are definitely huge in esports. 2K – that franchise is big.

I would say that’s a majority of it – first-person shooters, battle royales and then sports games.

I’ve seen some big esports tournaments. Does the Esports Club here at the University participate in that? 

Ryan: So we are working towards – hopefully – being able to do that. I know that Wes, who is the president of the Esports Club now, he’s put together some tournaments with members of the Esports Club.

But there’s definitely a desire to enter into some of the bigger esports tournaments. But obviously, we’ll have to be sponsored and have funding to be able to do that.

Do you have to practice for these events? Do you train?

Ryan: Oh, yeah. You definitely would train. There’s actually teams. You form a team, and you have a coach. You have training sessions. You really want to make sure that you train daily, or you’ll lose a step. Which I can attest to – I lost every step from not playing games for a while.

But yeah, they take it seriously. It’s esports – it’s no different than any other sport. You have to constantly train, constantly strategize. You put in the same amount of work that you would do as if you were playing a physical sport.

So how did esports grow into a multi-billion-dollar industry? Part of it is obviously the new technological capabilities. What else do you think snagged people’s interest?

Ryan: There’s a lot of factors that go into it. The popularity of video games continues to increase with – like you said – the advancements in technology. I think there’s been some really prudent partnerships that the esports community has done with different athletes and different marketing opportunities that have gotten the word out.

There’s the streaming platform Twitch, which is like a social media platform for sharing clips from video games. And you can actually stream live on there. That has really brought that social media element that they need to where you can have people all over the world watching you play different games.nSo yeah, I think like with any sport, game popularity through smart marketing decisions.

So it’s the equivalent of a sports team in endorsements?

Ryan: Yes, absolutely. I would put it more toward thinking of how YouTubers who have millions of followers and are able to generate revenue off of that because advertisers know that they have a reach. They’ll pay those YouTubers or those Twitch streamers; they’ll pay them for a promotion, endorsements or advertising.

Those people are influencers, in other words.

Ryan: Exactly. They’re influencers.

What motivates you to continue playing? 

Ryan: It’s a great relaxer for me. That’s my biggest thing. So I’m not super-competitive when it comes to it; I’m not ever going to pretend to be a one-percenter where I can go in and just dominate everybody.

But I use video games as a release from the stresses of work and family; it’s a great way to relax. It’s a great way to scratch that competitive itch as well; there’s a sense of pride in being able to beat somebody at something.

As I get older, my ability to play regular sports continues to go downhill as my body continues to go downhill. But luckily, you don’t have to be young to be able to excel at video games.

Does the Esports Club hold events for members?

Ryan: We haven’t been able to do anything in person. But they’ve tried different tournaments where they say, “Okay, guys, we’re gonna hop into a tournament for one of the games like Valorant, Apex or Call of Duty.”

I know they’ve entered at least one tournament. Back about a year ago or so, the University had a team entered into a tournament.

But I caveat all this with saying that we’ve never had great direction. With the hiring of Craig Skilling, who is the new Esports Club Program Coordinator, I think that’s going to take it to the next level. We’re finally getting the direction to be more than just a handful of people who post random clips on the Discord page, which is pretty much what we’ve been doing.

Craig is a faculty member; he’s going to be teaching some of the classes within the bachelor of science in esports program. He just came on a few weeks ago to do the training that that the staff has to go through. He’s going to be actually facilitating some of those esports classes as well as being the program director for all things related to the Esports Club.

So apart from the usual benefits of being in a student organization – such as networking with like-minded people – and sharing your love of esports with the world, what are the other benefits of belonging to the Esports Club?

Ryan: So as of right now,I’d say getting insights. There’s different channels within Discord, so people can share insights into gaming industry news that they may have heard that other people haven’t heard. They can promote themselves in Discord; you can send out links to your Twitch channel or whatever you may want to promote in there.

But like I said, we’re in the infancy of it. So there’s only about 130-some members, I believe, and we envision making that number go exponentially higher going forward.

Right now, we’ve really only scratched the surface of what the club’s capabilities are. But we do envision a scenario where we can have University-sponsored teams competing in national-level esports competitions across various games and various platforms.

Do those esports competitions take place in a certain location? Like Washington, DC, or any particular city?

Ryan: So we would have to see if we would be able to participate in something like that. I know that right now, they’re doing a lot of things virtually.

With the internet and online play, you could be anywhere in the world as long as you have a strong internet connection and be a part of virtual tournaments. But we’ll have to see if we would get to a point where we could compensate members for their expenses to travel to these esports tournaments.

Why do audience members get a kick out of watching esports tournaments? Is it because they like to see people they personally know competing in them? I would imagine there’s some pressure involved by knowing that the world’s looking over your shoulder, waiting to see how you perform.

Ryan: So I’ve participated in one esports competition. And it was for one of the lesser games – Smash Brothers Melee.

But at the end of the night, the main showcase was a battle between two very well-known Mortal Kombat fighters. They pitted them against each other for the championship, and people went absolutely nuts – cheering and whooping and just going crazy at each combo [a button combination that causes a ton of damage consecutively in Mortal Kombat] that was hit.  

With other sports, you have that affiliation of being a part of the team. With esports, it’s more of an individual thing. There are teams, but a lot of it is more like individual esports competitors get more buzz than a team.

If we had a team competing, I think that anybody who has an affiliation with the University would obviously be interested in watching them perform well. It’s almost like a following with tennis or golf where you have your favorite competitor, and you root for them because they’re really good at what they do. A lot of people choose the best at whatever they’re doing or they just take a liking to somebody.

I’ve heard that NFL players are less marketable from an individual perspective than any other sport because of all the helmets and padding that they wear. You don’t get to see their faces much.

But with esports, somebody’s face is right up there. They’re on Twitch; you can see them playing the game. You can see their face as well as the screen where they’re playing, so you’re able to have that more personal connection with somebody. I think that’s a big key in it, actually – being able to connect with somebody, knowing what they look like and knowing their playing style. 

Another thing is that – and this would be more for fighting games – you may have a character that you like to use in the game. And maybe there’s someone who’s really good at using that character, and you might root for that person because they share that same character with you. So there’s a lot of different reasons why someone might attach themselves to rooting for somebody.

What are your recommendations for someone who wants to get into esports?

Ryan: Make sure that you are committed. If you want to be a competitive and potentially professional gamer, you need to put in the practice as if you were playing a regular sport.

You would need to practice daily; you would need to be a part of as many competitions as you can. You would need to continually improve your craft. It is not just a hobby that you can do on your time off.

Practice, get experience, join a club, join a team. Find a group of people who are able to challenge you to get better at whatever game you’re interested in.

Where do you think the future of esports is headed?

Ryan: In my opinion, esports is going to continue to grow. It’s already a billion-dollar industry.

I think that we’re going to get to a point where we see universities have an esports team, similar to a basketball team, a football team, a track team and a soccer team. I think that it could get to the point where major tournaments are streamed across the giants in sports broadcasting – ESPN, FOX Sports, CBS, ABC.

I could see it getting to a point where collegiate esports is a tier below regular sports. It’ll never get up to where college football or college basketball are, but I could see it on that next tier where you can see it on TV. Maybe not on the prime-time slots, but I can definitely see it getting to a point where we look at esports for colleges at the same level as we would look at college soccer, baseball, softball, or track and field. 

I think it’s going to explode in the college sector. I think there’s going to be more and more schools offering degrees in esports.

I know that we’re not the first to offer a degree in esports but we’re definitely in that first wave of universities that are offering that program. I look forward to it being a staple in the collegiate experience going forward – both playing within a club and also getting degrees within esports.

So that wraps it up. Ryan, thank you for taking the time to chat with me about the Esports Club and esports today.

Ryan: You’re welcome!

Susan Hoffman is a Managing Editor at Edge, whose articles have appeared in multiple publications. Susan is known for her expertise in blogging, social media, SEO, and content analytics, and she is also a book reviewer for Military History magazine. She has a B.A. cum laude in English from James Madison University and an undergraduate certificate in electronic commerce from American Public University.

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