University e-sports groups gain members, popularity

University of Minnesota students are playing video games for cash, while a professional scene develops where players compete for millions.

History juniors Nick Carrigan, left, and Ian Lambert, right, play Dota 2 on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016 at Bruininks Hall on East Bank with the uDota club during its weekly meeting.

Chelsea Gortmaker

History juniors Nick Carrigan, left, and Ian Lambert, right, play Dota 2 on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016 at Bruininks Hall on East Bank with the uDota club during its weekly meeting.

David Clarey

At the University of Minnesota, Nathan Ernst’s sports regimen bears resemblance to other college athletes.

His team practices four times a week, coaches review play-by-play tapes and he scrimmages with other groups around the nation.

In the last five years, Ernst estimates he has spent more than 5,000 hours training, but for a sport deemed unconventional by most.

Ernst is part of the growing e-sports community on campus; he’s a solo midlane player for the League of Legends competitive team, the Wombats, and his team faces off against other schools for cash prizes.

In the past several years, e-sports have grown explosively in the U.S. Last year, e-sports championships surpassed the viewership of both golf’s Masters’ Tournament and the National Basketball Association Finals.

And the trend is on the rise: Market research firm Newzoo predicted that avid viewers of e-sports will rise to 131 million this year, up from 90 million in 2014. According to the same research, by 2017, the scene is expected to be worth more than $1 billion.

On campus, e-sports have followed a similar trajectory in popularity. Two years ago, the first official e-sports team started at the University of Minnesota. A year later the first Dota 2 team dug into campus. Now, the Wombats compete nationally for thousands of dollars.

At a tournament in Moorhead, Minnesota the Wombats recently won a share of the meet’s $500 prize pool, which they split among the players.

Still, few colleges view e-sports as an actual sport, and won’t until they become institutionalized by the NCAA, said Seth Jenny, associate professor at Winthrop University in South Carolina.

Jenny said lack of recognition isn’t an issue in some schools — like Robert Morris University, where top e-sporters are offered scholarships to play for the team.

“I don’t think the rest of society is gonna start to take it seriously as a ‘sport’ unless we have that school [support,]” he said.

Some players decide to shun college altogether and join professional teams, where the average player is around 19-years-old, said Nick Phan, general manager of a League of Legends team part of e-sports organization Team Liquid.

At the professional level, players’ lifestyles reflect that of a professional athlete, with hours of practice and sponsorship obligations, like photos and fan meet-and-greets, Phan said.

“For these kids, its their job,” he said. “It’s crazy to see how much time commitment and dedicaiton goes into being successful in this industry,” adding that professional e-sports players are under intense pressure to succeed.

“I think player longevity right now is in a very fickle state, it’s pretty volatile,“ he said. “There’s just so many people who are getting into professional gaming that it’s easy to say ‘oh you had a bad game, we’re gonna bring in someone new.’”

Theresa Gaffney, the web editor-in-chief of the Collegiate StarLeague, a college-level e-sports organizer, said the sport was predominantely seen as a pastime in Asia at one time, but has grown into prominence in the U.S.

“It’s a perfect storm, and I’m a little bit surprised, but mostly happy,” she said.

Gaffney said the collegiate league started in 2009 with about 30 teams, but this year has over a thousand.

Changing the appeal of e-sports to a mainstream audience is the next step, she said.

“Once its accepted by American culture as something that’s not to be laughed off … that’s whats gonna make e-sports grow even more,” she said.

However, University e-sports members say they don’t care if the sport gains wide acceptance.

Burke Minihan, who founded the University’s Dota 2 team, said “It doesn’t need to be called a sport, we don’t care.”