Copyright 2017 The Deseret News Publishing Co.
Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)
SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah doesn't feel the need to offer any apologies for being the first Power Five school in the country to organize and support a varsity-level esports team because, whether people are aware of it or not, esports is already a thing.
"Esports is here and it's big," said Roger Altizer, co-founder of the U.'s Entertainment Arts and Engineering program and director of the Therapeutic Games and Apps Lab. "Utah just happens to be smart enough to empower that and to chase it."
On Wednesday, Altizer helped introduce the U.'s debut roster of varsity esports athletes. The 33 students earned their scholarship-supported team slots after a rigorous tryout process that took place earlier this semester.
Over 200 students competed against each other for the chance to represent the school on teams broken down by the four games in which they'll compete. Those include first-person shooting game "Overwatch"; fantasy game "League of Legends"; soccer-inspired car-arena game "Rocket League"; and fantasy card game "Hearthstone."
U. senior and computer science major Michael "Swish" Swisher is a highly ranked "League of Legends" player. "League of Legends" is one of the most popular of its kind and last year the game's creator, Riot Games, estimated it had 100 million active monthly users. Swisher has been playing the game since shortly after it was released in 2009 and, make no mistake, he takes the competitive aspect of the new program very seriously.
"I want to set a precedent with my teammates and my coaches and with everyone else in the esports program that we're here to win," said Swisher. "We're not here to mess around. ... We're here to make our community proud."
The power of that community is one that Swisher said was first illustrated to him shortly after coming to Utah from his hometown of San Ramon, California. At his first home Utes football game, something very powerful happened.
"The first time I heard the third-down jump and roar of the crowd at Rice Eccles Stadium, I kind of realized the pervasiveness the U. has in Salt Lake City," Swisher said. "Since then I've experienced, so many times, people reaching out just because you're a Ute.
"I enjoy how much love and affection I get here and I want to give back."
Swisher and his teammates are putting in a lot of hours in preparation for representing the Utes in upcoming competitions against club and college teams. He said the U. team is typically spending 10-20 hours a week scrimmaging against other teams and most players are putting in additional hours in individual playing time. Swisher, who played football and lacrosse in high school, said esports competitors can log a lot more hours than mainstream athletes since physical exhaustion is less of a factor.
"It's our first year as a varsity team and we're all putting in a lot of time," Swisher said. "If you're done with your homework and other responsibilities, you can just grind hours."
Local gaming fans will be able to check out the results of all that hard work in-person at upcoming Ute esports events. A.J. Dimick, director of operations for the U.'s Entertainment Arts and Engineering program, said while it may take some time to settle into a permanent venue, the U.'s esports competitions will be engaging and high-energy events. He also envisions a growth arc that will put the sport on par with other college athletics in the not-too-distant future.
"We'll be throwing the doors open to the facility and inviting the public to watch us play," Dimick said. "We intend to grow this and we expect this to become a mainstream college sport. And, it has the potential that both football and basketball have."
Lest anyone scoff at that notion, some supporting statistics may be illustrative. In 2016, more viewers watched two South Korean teams square off in the "League of Legends" World Championship final at L.A.'s Staples Center, 43 million, than watched the finals of that year's NBA Championship, 31 million, which was the biggest basketball audience in 18 years.
On the business side of the esports equation, Google swallowed online gaming streaming service Twitch in 2014 for $1 billion. And, analysts say, it's an industry still in its earnings infancy. Esports market watcher Newzoo estimates the industry will generate $465 million in 2017, more than doubling 2016's revenues.
While fame and fortune may or may not be in the offing for the budding esports superstars on the U.'s new varsity squad, the U. is taking pride in being out front on a new and innovative addition to its campus sports portfolio.
"We're already very well known for people making and studying games at very high levels," Altizer said. "And now we're going to be known for students playing games at very high levels."
To learn more about U. esports visit https://eae.utah .edu/esports/.
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