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The Fight for eSports Recognition, Respect, and Money at the University of Washington

eSports athletes at University of Washington want their sport to hang with the traditional athletics program.

by Matthew Baume
Jan 31 2017, 6:23pm

Aaron, a University of Washington student, was recently confronted with an ultimatum by his boyfriend: Stop spending up to eight hours a day playing League of Legends, stop going to tournaments, and focus more on their relationship.

"We'll see," Aaron told him, but later confessed, "in my mind it was a 'no.'"

Dropping practice and play just wasn't an option. Aaron had planned his entire academic career around professional gaming, he explained after ending the relationship. "This is what I'm going to be doing my entire life... this is what I want to do, this is what consumes all my free time." He frowned. "It can be frustrating when your greatest passion, your career path ... is not accepted by the person you really care about."

It wasn't the first time someone had tried to derail Aaron's career plans. Organized competitive gaming, also known as eSports, continues to attract skepticism from family, friends, colleagues, and officials at his university. But Aaron and his teammates are on a mission to change all that.

Starting with Spacewar tournaments at Stanford in the early 1970s, competitive video game tournaments have existed for longer than many of today's players have been alive; but it's only in the last decade or so that local matches have turned into an industry that stands to rival physical sports.

League of Legends University image courtesy of Riot. Header courtesy of Riot and University of Washington.

Just like the Olympics, eSports brings together millions of spectators (and dollars) with professional players in peak condition. They perform for stadiums packed with thousands of cheering fans; majestic music blares as teams enter; players stand in macho lineups, squinting at each other with arms folded as they prepare to battle for global supremacy.

"Each fights for a chance to change their lives," declared an announcer when The International, a Dota 2 tournament, kicked off last year. An Olympics-grade montage showed winners from years past, hoisting each other aloft as sparks exploded around the stage. "Each hungers for conquest," growled the voiceover.

They also hunger for cash. An August 2016 report by market analyst Newzoo estimates that eSports would generate $493 million that year in media rights, merchandise, tickets, advertising, brand partnerships, and investment from game publishers. By 2019, the company estimates, it'll pass $1 billion. In 2015, there were over 112 major eSports events awarding over $60 million in prizes to the world's top gamers. The winners of last year's International, a Chinese team called Wings Gaming, earned a prize of over $9 million.

Suddenly, Aaron's hours of practice don't seem like such a bad investment after all—at least, no worse than football practice. And like many talented student athletes with a single-minded determination to excel, Aaron and his fellow gamers at the University of Washington are dedicated to making eSports their career.

But college players often struggle to find the institutional backing that players in traditional sports can take for granted. And so UW gamers united to create the Washington Gaming Association, and are now pressuring the school to officially support their teams.

"I had the opportunity to go to quite a few colleges and universities to play soccer," said WGA co-founder Bryan McCarthy, "but I had the opportunity to go to UW and play for the League of Legends team..." he gave a slight wince, "to my parents' displeasure."

When he was twelve years old, McCarthy was scouted for a Halo team. When he was thirteen, he was invited to move into a gaming house and compete full-time with adult players. "My parents wouldn't let me drop out of middle school to pursue those gaming goals," he lamented.

Now that he's in college, in addition to the WGA, he also co-founded a more elite group known as Washington eSports that encompasses eight teams, each specializing in a different game.

League of Legends University image courtesy of Riot

"You get to represent your school," McCarthy said. "A huge part of it is pride. And another huge part of it is money."

The top prize for the 2016 Heroes of the Dorm tournament: $25,000 towards tuition, paid for up to three years.

That money would be particularly meaningful to players like Aaron. His parents are paying for school, but he worries they might withdraw support if they find out that he's gay. Self-funding his education means he could safely come out to them. (His name has been changed for this article.)

A crucial step in winning those tournaments is recruiting top-tier talent. But the WGA has had difficulty securing support from UW Athletics, which recently complicated efforts to recruit a local League of Legends player. "We have one of the top ten players in North America, he lives in Seattle and wants to play on our team," said McCarthy. But without an athletic scholarship, he's been unable to get that player into the school.

In their push for recognition from their schools, part of what McCarthy and other student players are up against is a traditionalist view of sports—an attitude best summed up by BBC commentator Tim Warwood when he recently dismissed gamers by saying, "when I was a kid, sport was all about getting outside, getting wet, muddy, out of breath."

So far, only a handful of schools offer eSports scholarships, including Robert Morris University in Illinois, Southwest College in Kansas, and the University of Pikeville in Kentucky. The University of California at Irvine became the first public university to offer an eSports scholarship in fall 2016.

Players intent on going pro are far more likely to gravitate to schools than can offer them support, financial or otherwise. RMU, for example, built a dedicated gaming arena with specialized lighting, chairs, and gaming rigs. UCI's arena was funded in part by gaming companies like iBuyPower.

Hearthstone image courtesy of Blizzard

McCarthy recently offered UW Athletics a 50-page presentation in the hopes he can persuade them to follow suit. Millions tune in to watch eSports matches: An average of 20 million viewers watched the 2016 NBA finals series, and roughly the same number watched this year's International. Boasting a top-ranked team and cutting-edge facilities, he argued, could be a tremendous advertising opportunity for the school.

But scholarships and arenas are a tall ask for an athletics department projecting a deficit of nearly $15 million. And according to Associate Athletic Director Carter Henderson, "we would need it to be an NCAA-sponsored sport." The school is required to abide by NCAA guidelines when adding to their roster of 22 recognized sports, from golf to football to beach volleyball. He added: "Our priority is to fund the sports we've committed to."

But, Carter added, the Athletics department is eager to work with student groups, and might collaborate on organizing on-campus events while they wait to see if the NCAA will give eSports a green light. When asked if he considers professional gaming a sport, Carter declined to answer, saying that he still needs to learn more about it. The last title he could recall playing was Mike Tyson's Punch-Out.

The differences between physical sports and eSports pose serious challenges to official academic recognition—particularly when it comes to the legal and financial differences. For example, nobody owns the game of baseball; but League of Legends belongs to Riot Games, which opens a pandora's box of intellectual property law.

Dota 2: The International image courtesy of Valve

And eSports revenue works very differently from traditional college sports, which has strict rules about funding from schools and private companies. In contrast, eSports tournament pools are funded by a wide range of gaming companies as a means to drive game sales and sponsorship. When it comes to financial regulation, eSports is the Wild West, with few measures to ensure transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.

But WGA members aren't waiting around for permission from athletic gatekeepers to advance their careers. At the start of each semester, they engineer aggressive recruitment drives, recently converting a ballroom into a temporary gaming arena to draw in curious freshmen. With 40 volunteers, WGA leadership has meticulously mapped out a pitch to each round of incoming students, complete with swag giveaways and invitations to future formal gaming events.

Jonathan Oh, vice president of WGA and president of the Hearthstone team, has been monitoring one particular player's progress. "As I saw him doing really well in these tournaments, it was my mission," he said. "He's a sophomore this year, that's really young. Having him on the team, he'll be able to lead the team over the next few years."

It's worth noting that for all the talk of eSports deserving a place alongside other athletics programs, it still looks nothing like a traditional sport. The fields are virtual, and the reflexes are confined to fingers. At tournaments, a player's hand skittering over a keyboard looks more like the spidery dance of a pianist's than the muscular fist gripped around a baseball bat.

And yet, eSports players and traditional athletes see eye-to-eye when it comes to the fellowship, teamwork, and pride in one's team that imbues competition with meaning.

"Whether the school supports us or not is up to them," said McCarthy, with a look of determination that would be at home on any underdog's football field. "But we will be competing."

"When people first get into a sport, they're young and they don't know what to do," said Jonathan. "Once you start working together with them, working to get better with them, pushing them and them pushing you, it creates a really good feeling." He paused. "It makes you feel really special because you will be relied on. Having that feeling of, 'I can help a person improve, be a better version of themselves.'"

For now, the UW teams are waiting to see if their school can provide them with support. But they're not in a holding pattern; the PAC-12 conference, which previously included sports like basketball and football, recently expressed interest in broadcasting eSports matches on ESPN. The UW teams expect to be a part of that endeavor. Talks between PAC-12 and universities have been ongoing since then, and the WGA has approached local companies like Amazon about building a gaming arena on campus.

"Whether the school supports us or not is up to them," said McCarthy, with a look of determination that would be at home on any underdog's football field. "But we will be competing."

In fact, in the time that this article was being written, McCarthy announced that he's dropping out of UW to join one of the country's most prestigious Overwatch teams, Counter Logic Gaming. While universities ponder their next moves, the eSports industry is rapidly advancing, filling its rosters by plucking players from college campuses.

But although millions of dollars and the future of an industry are at stake, the players at UW are far more likely to talk about companionship and cooperation than business and finance.

"It's all about being part of a larger community," said WGA President Kevin Hoang. "It's camaraderie, and uniting as Huskies."

That's not so different from the priorities expressed by UW Athletics.

"The core of our mission is not to make money," said UW's Carter Henderson. "It's to provide a great student athlete experience... a place where students can come and pour in hard work."

And so for now, as are many schools, the University of Washington is locked in an eSports impasse, with two sides squaring off at each other despite their complementary goals.

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