By Katelin Hudson
The charcoal black and crimson red t-shirt fitted jerseys, complete with the University of Oklahoma logo, hang off the shoulders of 6 individuals. While the team might not be as widely known as the OU football team, the league their team competes in is known in smaller circles for its extensive prize lists for winning teams.
This team is lead by Joseph Savala, a 23-year-old OU graduate. Although he is unable to play sports at OU due to the fact he has already graduated, Savala still finds a way to interact with collegiate athletics, which he does through coaching the OU Esports Club and Sooner Esports Team.
Spending roughly 12 to 18 hours a week coaching League of Legends players for free, Savala must balance his time with a 40 hour a week paid job as a childrens specialist for the Department of Human Services.
But Savala doesn’t mind putting in the time; in fact, he enjoys it.
“I’ve stayed as a coach for so long because I love doing it,” Savala said. “It’s really great to see all of these people with similar interests come out of their shells and grow – not only as people, but also as a team. It’s pretty great.”
League of Legends, or LoL for short, is a multiplayer online battle arena video game that is highly competitive. LoL is one of the five games that the Sooner Esports Team allows; the other four include: Overwatch, Counter Strike Global Offensive, Rocket League and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
These games are recognized as official esports games due to several different factors.
ESPORTS AS AN INDUSTRY
Top esports games must be simple enough for new players to understand, while also being challenging enough to master so that longtime players can continuously grow. Additionally, high player numbers also have a lot to do with esports games. Freemium style games, such as LoL, can help to boost player numbers because players do not have to buy these games to play them. Equal playing fields and games with definitive winners also key because it means that players can’t have special advantages even if they are a higher level. Lastly, spectator appeal is an equally important factor. A game that is fun to watch increases a game’s chances of breaking into the top esports games.
Esports as an industry has seen rapid growth over the past three years. In 2017, the global esports market was valued at $655 million. In just one year this value grew to $865 million in 2018. With this quick growth expected to continue, the number is estimated to grow to roughly $1.79 billion by the year 2022.
One factor that aids in esports’ extensive following is the addition of streaming. Streaming schedules allow players to put themselves and their gaming skills out there for potentially massive audiences.
Streaming has allowed gaming to transform from a niche, household hobby to an entire industry with a growing fan base.
In fact, OU Esports Club has its own Stream Team; which according to Matthew Miller, Streaming Entertainment Director, OU is one of the few college esports clubs with a dedicated team.
“The Stream Team is important because we fundraise money for the club as a whole,” Miller said. “Our little team helps by providing an additional revenue stream, while also (acting) as an advertising platform for our internal events and activities.”
But, the Stream Team is also important for community building.
“Stream Teams are so important for esports leagues because they also show a side of esports that isn’t just about competition,” Miller said.
ESPORTS AS A COMMUNITY
For many within college esports teams, it’s less about the potential revenue and more about the sense of community players feel from being a part of esports.
According to Alexander Westphal, known as “Xander of Astora” within the gaming community, the OU Esports Club helped him break out of his shell and find the friends he was searching for.
“When I first came to OU, I was considering joining a fraternity for the camaraderie, but that sort of environment didn’t really suit me, but I found what I was looking for in the esports club and with my team,” Westphal said.
The esports community at OU is large. With roughly 500 members and counting, the OU Esports Club is home to many on OU’s campus who share an affinity for playing video games. While many of these friendships are supported through online servers, many friendships are maintained even outside of set meeting times.
“Being part of the community, specifically the competitive side, has affected me positively, as I’m currently sharing an apartment with one of my teammates who has since become one of my best friends,” Westphal said.
ESPORTS AS A REGIMEN
A specific room for the University of Oklahoma Esports Club and Sooner Esports has yet to be assigned or constructed, but that doesn’t deter members from meeting. Members either meet at other members houses or, more commonly, online.
With one click on the bluish purple hue of the Discord app icon, players are able to connect with others through voice chats, game invites and instant messaging without leaving the house.
Members must be on Discord roughly 12 hours a week. They meet after their classes, after work and after meals. And missing is not an option – not logging in counts as an absence, which members are only allowed three of.
While the name “esports” might come from a lack of a better word, esports certainly reflects many of the same ideologies that major sports emphasize.
Those who engage in esports competitively must put in a lot of time and effort to improve or even stay at the same level.
“In order to be on the competitive side of things, our teams must practice – there’s no way around it,” Savala said. “Coaches also have to stay on top of things too. They must know the ins and outs of a game, see where (players) are messing up and find ways to mediate that.”
THE FUTURE OF ESPORTS
The OU Esports Club and Sooner Esports team became officially licensed by OU at the beginning of 2019; which means they are able to use the OU logo on their website, at events and on their most recently designed esport jerseys.
As the esports industry continues to grow, more and more colleges are taking competitive online gaming more seriously, licensing teams and changing the way the esports conversation is handled.
As of Fall 2019, ten colleges across the country offer an esports major and minor program. Additionally, 54 colleges currently provide esports scholarships to top players.
Russel Hanks, a League of Legends CStar known as “Schiecenzoria,” believes esports growth will continue for years to come.
“It seems like more and more corporations are realizing that gaming is an unexploited land of potential profit,” Hanks said. “New streaming platforms bring gaming into the entertainment industries: which is one of the largest (industries) America has to offer. Because of (these two factors), I think this momentum will continue as the years go on.”