The new look of collegiate sport

(First published in the October 7, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Northcentral Technical College is investing $220K in video game sports to help recruit students

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NTC students participate in tryouts to make one of three new esports teams at the technical college. Students have just begun competing against other college teams across the U.S., and will soon have an “arena” for matches across network and in-person events.

Two rows of students sit at computers lining a room as teachers watch on at Northcentral Technical College. The clickity-clack of mice and keyboards fill the space. So far it sounds like a typical college computer lab.

But the students aren’t studying; they’re trying out for a sport. And that sport doesn’t involve a stick or a ball, nor touchdowns or homeruns. This is sport for the digital age.

The students are trying out for NTC’s esports team, a brand new venture the technical college is tackling full on. These students are using high-end gaming machines, sitting in specialty chairs that look ripped from a Formula One car cockpit, shiny leather with colorful bright red or blue inlays.

The students are trying out for one of three games NTC plans to compete in: League of Legends, a top view, team-based action-strategy game with a structure similar to old fashion capture the flag; Rocket League, which is basically soccer with cars; and Overwatch, a team-based first-person shooter.

Why is NTC creating a video game team? Because esports are becoming a big deal. Teams outside of college are competing for millions of dollars in prizes, and in arenas the size of basketball stadiums. The esports industry is poised to hit the billion dollar mark this year and projected to grow well beyond that.

It’s also becoming a big deal on the college scene. Some Division I schools are offering full ride scholarships for potential players, giving those kids a quick retort to the questions they get from mom and dad about all the time spent playing video games.

NTC is looking at scholarships too. But even now, its position on esports could be easily considered “all-in.” The school has invested $220,000 to buy those fancy gaming computers and colorful gaming chairs, and to build a new esports arena on campus and hire coaches.

NTC is one of the first schools in the state to really embrace esports, and is definitely the first to build an arena (now under construction) that can house not only its own team to play others over network, but also in-person events the school can host when other teams play there in person.

And if all that sounds like fun and games… well, sure, it literally is that. But it’s also something NTC considers a powerful recruitment and retention tool. And for the players, it’s a serious sport.

Billion dollar industry

The League of Legends World Championship is one of the biggest events in esports gaming. More than 200 million viewers watched the World Championship tournament in 2018. That’s nearly the number of viewers who watched the Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four combined.

The US right now has the biggest market share of the esports industry, with 37%; China is second with 19%. The total industry is expected to skyrocket in coming years. According to data tracker Statistica, the industry will hit more than $1 billion this year, and grow to $1.7 billion by 2022.

That’s because those who have truly mastered the game have put countless hours into the sport, and have skills that are tough to match. Games like League of Legends are notoriously difficult with a high learning curve. The game itself provides a short tutorial that barely covers the basics, and then you’re thrown into the mix with experienced players, some who are on your team and relying on you. League of Legends, or Lol as it’s referred to in internet speak, is so notoriously beginner unfriendly that video game website Kotaku once published a piece called “A Guide To Playing League of Legends And Its Ilk Without Losing It.”

One thing likely owing to its popularity is that, unlike many other games, it requires little in the way of computing power to play. As one person told City Pages, the joke is that it can be played on a toaster. That means one doesn’t need expensive gaming equipment to play, making it accessible to many. And its notorious difficulty means it makes sense for new players to watch pros in tournaments or on streaming sites such as Twitch to see how the game is played well.

So maybe it’s no surprise that colleges are getting in on the action. Already in 2016 there were 15 schools that offered scholarships to play esports, according to Statistica. That’s grown today to almost 200 colleges in the U.S. offering esports scholarships, according to data from the National Association of Collegiate Esports (of which NTC is a member), with $15 million in scholarship money on the table.

Robert Morris University in Chicago was the first school to offer a League of Legends scholarship in 2014, and in 2016 UC Irvine founded a varsity esports team complete with a 3,500 square foot arena.

Ready, set, hike… er, click


NTC Coach Alex Burazin watches during team tryouts for the Rocket League video game.

The teams were selected through tryouts held last month, where 30 tried out and about half were chosen for teams or as substitutes. To be eligible, a student must be a full-time NTC student, taking at least 12 credits. Team members must maintain at least a 2.0 GPA, and any member with a GPA under 2.5 will be put on a success plan to improve his or her grades. Team membership is meant to inspire students to keep their grades up. “We have students working on improving their grades to gain or maintain eligibility,” DeGroot says. “We see it as a huge recruiting potential, and for maintaining student engagement.”

Right now the team is mostly playing scrimmages and joining individual tournaments. NTC’s team has been approved for the Collegiate Star League, or CSL, and will be able to join in the spring league (the team didn’t form in time for fall league). NTC’s League of Legends team two weekends ago played against Ole Miss (University of Mississippi); while the team lost, many of the games were close and potentially winnable, DeGroot says. At this point, teams from varying sizes can still compete — one can only imagine the disastrous results if NTC had formed a football team and tried to play Ole Miss.

The college level isn’t the only educational milieu where esports is becoming a fixture. Wausau West High School has had an esports team for four years now, says Alex Burazin, NTC coach of the Rocket League team and coach of Wausau West’s esports team. West was one of the first seven teams in the state to form the Wisconsin High School Esports Association. Now there are 40 teams, and SPASH and Merrill have programs, says Burazin, who teaches chemistry at West. D.C. Everest is working on one now too, he says.

Burazin was one of the people NTC reached out to when forming its esports team. Burazin likes to play Rocket League himself, so eagerly accepted when NTC asked him to be the Rocket League coach. Others come from afar. The League of Legends Coach is from Orlando, and played esports at Full Sail University. He wrote his masters on esports.

The teams practice two to three times per week, DeGroot says, and tournaments are usually on Saturday. The League of Legends team has taken it to the next level, discussing team strategy after each match and gathering game footage of future opponents, much like a football team might.

It’s already having the desired effect. High school students dual enrolled at NTC are already asking about joining the team and, learning they can’t unless they’re enrolled full-time at NTC, are formulating plans to attend next year. “This is going to grow,” DeGroot says.

Burazin says he’s seen esports reach kids who otherwise didn’t connect with other school programs, and helped them come out of their shell and feel like they’re part of something. “It’s a population that otherwise usually wouldn’t have sports involvement.

Plans are also in the works to start a club where other students can join without being part of the varsity team and use the space. NTC Communications Director Kelsi Seubert says NTC is planning to hold open houses when the arena is complete.

The arena is a 1,200-square-foot space where teams will practice and compete, with 24 high-end gaming computers, along with matching desks and chairs. The nearly all black room will have a 98-inch screen for reviewing game footage and three 55-inch screens with stations for Nintendo Switch, PS4 and Xbox One. It also includes a broadcast room for live-streaming and commentating on matches.

Student engagement

Logan Frischmann is a 20-year-old Culinary Arts student at NTC in his first semester. He’d been playing Overwatch for about a year and a half when he learned about the new esports teams and tryouts. He was instantly excited and then nervous: Would he be good enough to make the team? As a player on his own time, he’s ranked pretty high, but joining a college team is a different level.

He made it. Frischmann is now captain of the Overwatch team, which has quickly become a close group of friends. He says he and other players hit it off right away. “It was like we were all friends,” Frischmann says. “Most of us were complete strangers but it felt like we already knew each other for years.”

The Overwatch team already has seen some success. They played a Michigan school last Friday, beating them 3-0. “It’s a promising start to a promising league in the Midwest,” Frischmann says.

Isaac McQuay, a 22-year-old in his second year at NTC and pursuing a double major in video production and digital marketing, says he had similar excitement about the team and nervousness in trying out. Having played League of Legends for nearly eight years, he had a lot of experience, but didn’t know what caliber of player would be trying out. “You never know what competition you will be dealing with,” McQuay says.

McQuay is now leading the League of Legends team as its captain. Practices mean deep discussion about strategy and theory, practicing together as a team, and reviewing game footage, much like a football or basketball team might.

McQuay is excited to see the new arena completed, and says it will help showcase the team to the school. “If they walk past the practice facility they will see us playing, yelling and shouting instructions,” McQuay says. “It’s a super competitive, high-spirited environment.”

Do parents get it? McQuay says his family members are familiar with League of Legends and are supportive. But for Frischmann, convincing parents that this is something more than just a club or hobby, that it’s a varsity sport like football or hockey could be, has proven difficult.

Frischmann says it’s an honor to play on one of the three inaugural esports teams at NTC, one of the first schools in the state to enter the esports scene. “We’re like the pilot episode of a TV show,” Frischmann says. “We’re going to make this work. We’re going to make this a big thing for the area.”