Inside the heart of Northwest Christian University’s Burke-Griffeth Resident Hall is the school’s esports venue. NCU students intensely focus on their computers and, if it weren’t for the video games flashing on their monitors, the room could pass as a study hall.
Across the hallway is the viewing room, a theater with 12 comfortable recliner chairs. It’s where spectators sit during esports competitions — the team also streams games on the website Twitch. The events draw other students from the dorm when tournaments are happening, head coach Miles Adkisson tells me.
The world of esports — the name given to competitive online multiplayer gaming — is growing. Market research by the video game analytics firm Newzoo shows the number of global esports viewers is projected to grow to a total of 453.8 million this year, half of which are occasional viewers.
NCU’s esports team was developed so the school could find its place in the esports world and recruit a more diverse student body — and it’s succeeding, Adkisson says.
Esports isn’t just playing video games for fun. Students say it requires research, practice and analysis to grow and compete with other schools.
Adkisson along with assistant coach Elyse Crichton manages the team. They’re not barking out orders during practice or demanding more reps. Instead, they make sure the athletes are going to class, keeping good grades and showing up to academic obligations.
The program started last year with Overwatch, a team-based multiplayer first-person shooter game. This year, the team is competing in Rocket League and League of Legends. Overwatch and Rocket League are currently in season and the online multi-player real-time strategy game League of Legends’ season starts next semester.
The esports program falls under the umbrella of the college’s athletic department and is treated like any of the college’s 14 other athletic teams. Students in the program even receive scholarships. The average student on the team receives about $3,200 per term. The scholarships are distributed more on a financial need basis, Adkisson says.
“That scholarship is what made coming here a reality for me,” says Preston Clark, an NCU freshman.
Clark plays on the NCU’s Rocket League team, which is a game that’s essentially soccer, but with cars. Last year, he was at Lane Community College and knew some high school friends who played Overwatch on the team.
Clark says he talked with NCU’s previous coach about adding Rocket League. When the program added it and offered him a scholarship, he transferred to the university.
Akito Ryuzaki first heard about NCU’s esports program after his grandfather read about it in the newspaper. Ryuzaki grew up on video games — he remembers sitting on his grandfather’s lap to play the game Doom — and he’s always wanted to play as a professional. He contacted the school and enrolled in the spring term.
When Ryuzaki first started, he was new to the video game Overwatch, but not to first-person shooter games. During the term, he logged 12 hours a day to learn the game.
“Overwatch is a game that requires so much game knowledge that it makes it hard,” he says.
He was able to balance out schoolwork, but he got burned out on the game. This semester, he says he’s logging fewer hours to keep his interest in the game.
NCU’s esports teams rely on in-game communications just like any other sports team — whether it’s a baseball manager using sign language or football players holding signs. Both Rocket League and Overwatch require disciplined in-game communication and too much chatter can make the team suffer.
“If you’re talking too much, you might be talking over one of your teammates who’s trying to call a play,” Clark says.
He adds that it takes communication from the team so if the opponent is taking a shot at the goal, not everyone runs to the net — almost like outfielders calling a fly ball.
NCU’s esports teams use film in evaluating their game or YouTube to learn from professional esports athletes.
Clark says he and the Rocket League squad spend time during practice studying film from YouTube and deconstruct the play to understand the ways higher level esports players work at. The team also records their games and study the film after the event.
“In a sense that’s the connection to real sports is. People look back on their work performance to say, ‘Hey, how can I do this better?’” he says.
With Overwatch’s replay feature, Ryuzaki says he can review a game and dissect what went wrong. Or Ryuzaki can ask one of the two other Overwatch players on the squad who are ranked in the top 500.
When NCU’s esports competitors aren’t in the room practicing or competing, they study together for the one-hour athletic mandatory study period and even participate as a group in the university’s mandatory volunteer program “Embrace The Community.”
Playing video games together to compete against colleges throughout the U.S. never really hit Clark, though. Clark says neither of his parents went to college, so the idea of higher education for him was about getting an education and cramming.
“As I got closer to college, it was like, ‘Oh wow, I can actually play video games,’” he says. “It’s crazy.”
For more information about NCU’s esports team and their schedule, visit nwcu.edu/esports.