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Varsity eSports Begins at Albright

By Steve Neumann

eSports at Albright College

Albright College’s new eSports varsity team has joined the exciting and growing world of competitive video gaming.

Over the past couple of decades the phenomenon of eSports has appeared on the professional sports landscape like a blizzard. More recently, however, eSports has blown into the collegiate sports landscape with equal intensity.

“It’s just taking over at the college level,” says Janice Luck, head women’s basketball coach and co-director of athletics at Albright College.

Put simply, eSports — at both the collegiate level and the professional level — is organized, competitive video game playing. The collegiate trend began in 2014 when Robert Morris University in Illinois announced a scholarship-sponsored “League of Legends” team. Since that time, the number has exploded to include 125 college programs and a national governing body called the National Association of Collegiate eSports (NACE).

As Albright’s newest varsity team — and first co-ed team — eSports began its inaugural season this spring.

A true student initiative

The recognition of eSports as a varsity sport at Albright is thanks largely to the efforts of enterprising students Markus Hamilton ’20 and Andrew Hoffman ’20, two juniors who created the first eSports club on campus just a year and a half ago.

“Video games were always a big part of our lives,” Hamilton says. “We had a day off from class and we just thought, why couldn’t Albright have something like that?”

“We put the time in to do research and pitched it,” Hoffman says. “We didn’t think we’d get as much support as we did, but luckily we had people who had an interest and wanted to support it.”

Both Hamilton, an English major, and Hoffman, a computer science major, started playing video games as kids, and both see themselves involved in eSports after graduation.

“I’ve definitely thought about being a content creator on YouTube or Twitch,” Hamilton says. “I’m not looking at gaming as a career, but it’s definitely something I’d draw from for my writing.”

Hoffman, on the other hand, is leaning toward pursuing eSports as a career. He plans to use the money he earns from his job this summer to acquire the equipment he needs to stream his own games, and build a brand as a player. For now, he’s focused on being able to play on Albright’s eSports varsity team this year and next.

“If I’m able to perform well,” he says, “I’ll use that credibility to show that I’m a competitive player instead of just some average person playing games.”

Professional phenomenon

A career in professional eSports is possible because revenues for the teams come from the same places as other traditional sports teams — things like media rights, merchandising, ticket sales and partnerships with corporate sponsors.

Just like athletes for traditional sports like football or basketball, gamers are followed by millions of fans all over the world, many of whom attend live events, or watch them on television or online through streaming services like Twitch, which allow viewers to watch as their favorite gamers play in real time.

The organizing structure for professional eSports mirrors that for traditional sports as well. Just as there are leagues for traditional sports like ice hockey or soccer, for example, there are leagues for the eSports versions of those games as well as for “Call of Duty” and “League of Legends.”

The Electronic Sports League (ESL) is the largest eSports organization in the world, hosting professional leagues and tournaments at national and international levels for the most popular games. ESL also partners with gaming publishers like Blizzard Entertainment, Riot Games and Valve Corporation for competitions.

Breaking into a billion dollar industry

Michael Schwartz ’14, general manager, L.A. Valiant

The main first-person shooter and other role-playing games like those in which Albright College is competing are “League of Legends,” “Overwatch,” “Counter-Strike” and “Hearthstone.” These games are organized into corresponding leagues like the North American League of Legends Championship Series, the Overwatch League and the Mountain Dew League — which gives smaller teams chances to participate in ESL’s major “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” Pro League tournament.

Though he missed the new rise of college eSports, Michael Schwartz ’14 has had firsthand experience with the world of professional eSports as the general manager of the L.A. Valiant, an American professional “Overwatch” team. Schwartz was a political science and philosophy major while at Albright, and his senior thesis delved into streaming and copyright law.

“I wanted to bridge that area,” he says, “because eSports wasn’t as big back then.”

But the idea continued to rattle through his mind. So while applying to law schools, he also applied for a position as a player development coach for Counter Logic Gaming’s “League of Legends” team in Los Angeles. He got the job and joined the L.A. Valiant as team manager before moving into the general manager role he fills today.

Though there was no eSports club when Schwartz was a student at Albright College, he still played games regularly, particularly “Overwatch.”

“When you talk to the talent,” he says, “you’ve gotta know what you’re talking about on some level. I have to know the game as well as the players.”

If you would have asked Schwartz five years ago where he saw himself today, he would have said in a cubicle doing contract work. But his experience with the L.A. Valiant has been so rewarding that he plans to continue with eSports on the organizational side for the foreseeable future.

“Right now all the trends indicate that it’s going to be a multi-billion dollar industry over the next 10 years,” Schwartz says. “It’s already pushing the billion dollar mark now, and it’s just expected to keep on growing.”

eSports on the college level

Games like “League of Legends” and “Overwatch” are position-driven and skill-driven games that require a certain number of competitors — up to five for the former and six for the latter, which will be doubled due to the need for alternates in each position.

“For this first year we’re going to fill these spots as best we can,” Luck says, “but moving forward, the coaches will determine what positions we need and who’s the best at each position.”

As it grows, Albright’s varsity eSports coaching staff will most resemble track and field, which requires coaches specializing in areas such as throwing, sprinting and distance running. A director of sports operations will serve as a head coach, working with specialized “League of Legends,” “Overwatch” and “Hearthstone” coaches. Jason Hoerr, deputy chief information officer for Albright’s Division of Digital Strategy and Infrastructure, is serving as interim director of eSports operations until a head coach is on boarded.

Albright’s eSports team will mirror traditional athletic teams in some interesting ways. In addition to practicing two to three hours each day, players will also take part in mandatory workout and fitness sessions with Albright’s strength and conditioning coach.

“There are health concerns you have to worry about,” Luck says, “because you’re sitting in a chair for three hours at a time.”

And players on the eSports team will also honor the same varsity athletic guidelines outlined by Albright College, including grade point average and conduct requirements.

“They’ll have uniforms,” Lucks says, “and they’ll be invited to and mentioned at all our athletic events like our end of year banquet.”

Tune in

A dedicated eSports room in the athletic building was made possible through a gift from the Joyce Family Foundation. Jeffrey Joyce ’83, who heads the foundation, is chair of the Albright College board of trustees.

The college is also creating a Twitch account for fans interested in watching the eSports varsity team compete.

“Just as you’d be able to log on to our athletic website, albrightathletics.com, and watch an away basketball game,” Luck says, “you’ll be able to watch the eSports team play.”

Except, instead of watching the players sitting in the chairs at their computers, viewers will actually see the gameplay on the computer screen, much like watching a movie.

“It’s all very new, but it’s all very exciting!” Luck says.