A RISING TIDE: ESPORTS GROWING IN THE SHADOW OF BRYANT-DENNY

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Esports, one of the fastest growing forms of competition where video games are played with organized leagues, teams and seasons has acquired millions of fans and grown rapidly across the world. Now, teams are becoming established at colleges across the U.S. with sponsorships from large companies and scholarship opportunities for students who compete under their school’s name.

At the University of Alabama this new sport is taking root and hundreds of students are joining together to celebrate and enjoy the games they love.

When Kyle Drouin first came to UA, he said he remembered asking the admissions counselor if they had any kind of esports club. At the time, there were independent clubs for different video games and clubs that focused on board games, but no clubs fit what he was looking for. So he decided to co-found the Bama Esports club as a freshman and serve as president during the organization’s inaugural year.

Not all people who play video games are interested in esports or playing competitively; most just play because video games are fun.

Where to Find Bama Esports on Social Media:

A RISING TIDE: ESPORTS GROWING IN THE SHADOW OF BRYANT-DENNY

A RISING TIDE: ESPORTS GROWING IN THE SHADOW OF BRYANT-DENNY

“When I went to college, I decided that if they don’t have it, I’ll make one for the esports club,” Drouin said.

After founding the club, Drouin and other early members began working on growing the club. After Get on Board Day, the club exploded in size and in their first year they found nearly 300 freshman and sophomore students who had the same dedication to esports. Bama Esports Secretary Joseph Faletra said that they were overwhelmed by the growth but excited as well.

Within the club, not every member wants to compete in tournaments. Most are just fans who love the games they play and want to share that love with others. They all play in and are involved in more than 10 different games but the thing uniting them is the love of competitions. Marius Mueller, a junior who plays on the Alabama varsity League of Legends team, said he believes the dedication and passion that every fan and player has for these games is what makes them a sport.

“These people are passionate enough about it to want to always get better and compete against others and be the best team that they can,” Mueller said, “And I think that’s the essence of sports and why League and other esports are doing well, because they have these passionate fanbases who do want to just get better and compete.”

Another Alabama student into gaming competitions is Sean “Chip” Ogar, who’s also head coach of the Alabama League of Legends team. His freshman year on campus, Ogar said he looked for a club that resembled his interest but didn’t find one. So in Spring 2018, he and a doctoral student decided to establish the formalized League of Legends Club and compete that season as one of the players on the team.

After a rough season thanks to what he said was a lack of structure and professionalism, Ogar said he realized a more formal structure for esports was needed before it could thrive on campus. That’s when he decided to stop competing as a player and start working as the team’s head coach. When his sophomore year began, he said he discovered Alabama had a massive amount of talent available, so he began working even harder to ensure they could come out victorious.

“We have a lot, we have very high-skill level players for being in Alabama,” Ogar said. “It’s surprising to me. I didn’t think we’d be able to pull the talent that we’re pulling currently. We’ve got really talented players.”

In their last game of the College League of Legends South Conference 2019 Regular Season against Mississippi State, Ogar sat in his room furiously scribbling notes and communicating to his team over the chat service Discord while they prepared.

Most team members know what it’s like to compete in traditional sports and carry that same mentality into the esports. Ogar said he played baseball most of his life and Mueller said he competed in gymnastics during high school, but the challenges League of Legends presents make their games more interesting than anything else they’ve competed in.

“You have to work together with your team, communicate, have a game plan and I think combining those two together makes League, in my opinion, a lot more fun,” Mueller said. “I very much enjoyed doing gymnastics as a competitive thing but if I could’ve been on the high school League of Legends team I would have enjoyed that more.”

After preparations end, the best-of-three match begins. Within the first 5 minutes of the game, Ogar said he spots something their opponent did and wrote it down to relay to the team after the first game. He’s picked up the ability to look for little mistakes and patterns through playing baseball, he said, where he would watch pitchers and relay that information to teammates before they went to bat.

“That’s part of what makes League so much fun is the ability to both on a micro level and on a macro level to be able to outplay your opponents and show you are the stronger player,” Mueller said. “It’s just a very good feeling of satisfaction.”

After crushing the first game with relative ease, Ogar relayed what he’d spotted to his players. At the start of Game 2, the team used that weakness and won 5 minutes faster.

To achieve this level of play and knowledge, both junior and varsity team members dedicate an average of 20 hours a week to a game. They play together, scrimmage against each other and compete in tournaments on the weekend.

Ogar and other leaders of the team will also coordinate times for watching video reviews of their previous games. Friday nights, when almost everyone has left campus, the team is in a classroom reviewing and discussing how they played.

“You have other people that are around your skill set playing and helping you make decisions just as a whole team and there are things you can pull off that require a coordinated play that you can’t without a team,” Mueller said. “And I think that’s where League really comes alive, when you have a whole team playing together with specific goals and mine and you can just really tell you can’t do this as just five random people.”

One of the largest difficulties the normalization of esports faces at the University of Alabama and other colleges around the nation is the question of financial benefit. Esport tournaments often give their winners and other top-place finishers some form of financial reward. But collegiate competitors are not allowed to receive money from professionally competing in tournaments.

It’s a frustrating reality for some competing at Alabama. If they ever win money in a tournament, they have to forfeit it or risk losing their academic scholarships even though most of their competitions and equipment are personally provided and funded. While they aren’t considered an official sports team in the eyes of the university, they still have to follow the same rules.

“What doesn’t make sense is if we’re getting no support, we’re doing it on our own and then we have to cede what we earned to the university, that doesn’t make sense to me,” Ogar said.

Randall Huffaker, the faculty adviser for Bama Esports, said it’s a fine line for students competing in tournaments. He said he wants to encourage and promote competition and success within the club, but he also has to make sure they don’t risk their education.

“Yes you can play tournaments, but there’s an element of scholarships and getting paid that you have to tread very lightly with,” Huffaker said. “Even though you’re not recognized as an official sports team, as a student you can’t get paid professionally and get a scholarship. You have to watch those kinds of things and educate.”

Despite what they say is a lack of support, the Bama Esports League of Legends varsity team is finding success. In their most recent tournament, hosted by the esports club at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville (VOLAN), they defeated Auburn and other schools to win the grand finals and claim first place.

{{tncms-inline type=”twitter” html=”<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-width="550" data-dnt="true">
<p lang="en" dir="ltr">Congrats to our League of Legends varsity team for winning grand finals and placing 1st at <a href="https://twitter.com/utkesports?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@utkesports</a> VOLAN over the weekend!🐘🥇🐘 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/RTR?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#RTR</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/UofAlabama?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@UofAlabama</a> <a href="https://t.co/MANuj856Yb">pic.twitter.com/MANuj856Yb</a></p>
<p>— UA Esports (@AlabamaESports) <a href="https://twitter.com/AlabamaESports/status/1113131260338192388?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">April 2, 2019</a></p></blockquote>”}}

For the Bama Esports Club and their competitive teams to continue succeeding and maybe even garner formal support from the university, the club is working on proving they’re worth the investment. Mueller said their next steps is to take the club’s social media more seriously and better showcase events and competitions.

Currently, members of the Bama Esports club do not pay a fee for membership. Any equipment or financials necessary for a team to compete in different events is raised by the teams looking to compete within the organization. While the group expanded rapidly with a wide interest across the campus, the largest roadblock to their growth is an absence of funding.

For the League of Legends team, this lack of support has impacted how they are able to compete in tournaments. During their fourth game in the College League of Legends South Conference 2019 Regular Season, two players suffered internet loss. The players had to grab their desktop computers, jog to Ogar’s nearby apartment and set them up so they wouldn’t have to forfeit the match.

The team still won that best-of-three match but failed to qualify for the Southern Conference Playoffs after finishing their season 4-2. For Ogar, not only could their level of play change with formal support, but they could also avoid tense situations like this if given a dedicated space for competitions and practice.

“If I had formal support with scholarships and I could actually hold my players to doing certain things,” Ogar said. “Like I could hold them to putting in more hours and stuff like that, formally I would. But it’s impossible to ask that of people if it’s a volunteer thing and I’m not giving them anything other than the enjoyment of competitive esports.”

But the future looks bright for Bama Esports. Recently, they entered a provisional period to become an official sports club within the university. Huffaker said the best thing they can do is continue growing and working on organizing local tournaments that showcase their skills and passion for competition.

“If that happens, suddenly you’re gonna look at this and UA goes, wait a minute, there’s legit money here, there’s legit sponsors,” Huffaker said. “Maybe not at first, but if you’re regularly putting content out there that’s interesting, the sports department will literally engulf it.”

A RISING TIDE: ESPORTS GROWING IN THE SHADOW OF BRYANT-DENNY

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