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The Virginian — Pilot (Norfolk, VA.)

 

Ever wished playing video games was a varsity sport?

If you're a student at East Coast Polytechnic Institute in Virginia Beach — ECPI — you're in luck.

The for-profit college announced this week it is forming an esports team. It plans to dole out thousands of dollars in scholarships to its players, who will compete against dozens of other schools around the country. It'll be the first collegiate-level esports team in Hampton Roads, though other students compete through local clubs and organizations.

"We're bringing it because it's pretty much what our student population has asked for," said team manager Mike Glover. "We've tried for years to find a collegiate sport that our students would participate in."

ECPI does not offer any other sports and is largely a commuter school. It enrolls about 10,000 students across more than a dozen campuses.

Esports involves competitive multiplayer video game tournaments played in front of an audience. It's a growing industry worldwide, with eventsselling out venues like Madison Square Garden in New York and Staples Center in Los Angeles. Some competitions are broadcast on ESPN.

"It absolutely exploded in the last few years," though it's long been popular in a niche market, said Glover, a competitive gamer.

Global esports revenue is projected to reach $1.5 billion by 2020, according to the Wall Street Journal. Some owners from major sports franchises are investing in professional teams, including the Los Angeles Rams, Miami Heat and New York Mets. It's even been considered by the International Olympic Committee for future entry into the Olympics.

In Hampton Roads, there's already an active gaming community.

Vanessa Lasko founded the 7 Cities Gaming League to provide a space for avid gamers to connect and compete. She'd been finishing up a master's in business administration and studying video game companies when she started reading more about the formidable esports industry.

"I didn't even know you could make a living playing video games," Lasko said. "I never really considered it a competitive thing or a sport until much more recently."

She took a leap of faith and created the league to unite the region's gamers and bring esports to Virginia's attention. She works full time seeking player sponsorships, organizing events and cultivating talent.

Esports is "gaining momentum, and I think it would be wise for our area to take notice of it and not be left behind by it," Lasko said.

American universities out West have asked 7 Cities to help direct talented students to their campuses that offer hefty esports scholarships, Lasko said.

"It would be really nice if I could funnel them to Virginia colleges."

She's excited about ECPI's decision and hopes other Hampton Roads schools will follow suit. The 7 Cities league is also trying to open a gaming center in Virginia Beach, though Lasko said the city's been wary because "they don't know what this is."

Eric Lopez formed an esports club in 2016 at Old Dominion University. It now has about 25 members and competes nationally through Tespa, a network of college gaming clubs that also includes University of Virginia and Virginia Tech.

Lopez, who graduated last month with a mechanical engineering degree, said he's excited to see the phenomenon gain momentum in Hampton Roads. He hopes ODU will start an official esports program.

He said fans of esports can connect with each other and with professional players much more easily than in traditional sports. Players often livestream their games, for example, allowing audience members to "understand their personalities better — what makes them laugh, what makes them human."

And it doesn't matter what language you speak, he added.

Esports is "a hidden gem that's grown over the years," Lopez said. "As time goes on, people will get used to it, and it'll become part of the culture."

But it might take some time for his parents to fully understand, he acknowledged.

ECPI plans to hold tryouts for its Virginia Beach team on June 22 and 23. Officials said they've already received a flood of emails from interested people.

Everyone who makes the cut will get a $1,000 scholarship, and advanced players could receive up to $5,000, Glover said. That money comes with strings, including attending regular practices and academic requirements. The school's also invested $40,000 so far in team jerseys and new gaming equipment.

There are seven games sanctioned under the National Association of Collegiate eSports , with which ECPI is registered. They include multiplayer battle and shooter games, such as League of Legends and Counter Strike. The school will take up to 15 players per game.

The association lists 72 other schools on its website, including Northern Virginia Community College and Shenandoah University. That list often grows.

So how might Glover assuage the fears of parents concerned about their kids playing video games too much?

"In today's day and age, that would be pretty closed-minded," he said. "It might not be a traditional athletic team, but it's still a legitimate sport that has legitimate career paths."

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June 7, 2018
 
 
 

 

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