As the spawn doors on the map Watchpoint Gibraltar open, the Midland Overwatch team begins its attack. Its objective is to move a payload to multiple checkpoints on a set path by remaining close to the objective.
The team finds heavy resistance right out the gate. Immediately, three tanks draw fire, as their healer furious fires health stims into their teammates, keeping them alive. The Reinhardt, one of the tanks, hops on the payload, with the support of Gavin “Drgnslyr9001” Keeler’s Juckrat, a dps character. The objective begins to move, and Keeler quickly realizes that the entire enemy team is at bridge right above them.
As the pressure continues to flood the team’s spawn, an opposing player breaks through and ends up behind the Midland squad. Two members are taken down, which prompts a retreat from the objective to secure the flank. But Keeler notices something important and makes the call out.
“None of them are on point,” he said. “I’m going to take this as far as I can.”
This is the play that has stuck with Keeler throughout his four and a half seasons with Midland esports, where he has competed on its Overwatch team. Overwatch is a multiplayer first person shooter with a roster of unique charters that all bring something different to the team. Midland University is just one of many colleges to add esports to its athletic catalog, which provides students with the unique experience of competing in their favorite video games for scholarships.
Keeler said he knows at this point, a retreat will surely lose Midland all of the progress on the objective it’s made so far, and the team will have to completely reset, so he stays on the objective and continues making progress. The team battle continues in Midland’s spawn, but the unaware opposing squad doesn’t realize that the objective is still moving, and closes in on the first point.
When his team realizes that it can get a free objective secure, the strategy changes and the team puts pressure on its opponents to keep them from noticing the advancing payload. As the final five meters to capture the first point begins to tick down, the excitement of the team builds and shouts erupt from the team and the point turns blue, signifying that Midland has secured the first point of the match and now have their opponents pinched in their old spawn as the redeploys come in at the advanced position.
While collegiate esports are still in their early years, video game competitions are nothing new. High score tournaments popped up in the 1980’s on arcade machines. Few expected these competitions to become international affairs with millions of dollars on the line.
Publisher Blizzard’s multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA, Dota 2’s biggest tournament of the year, The International, in 2021 featured a prize pool of over $40 million.
The sudden boom in esports popularity has led colleges across the country to form their own squads to compete.
Midland University started its esports program in 2016 with just seven players on its roster and only 10 events on its schedule. The following year the roster size doubled, and so did the number of matches the team competed in.
Jordan Wiliams first joined the Midland squad in 2017 as a player. The Kenesaw, Nebraska native competed on the Overwatch team for three years, and shifted between all of the major roles from dps. That provides heavy damage output designed to get a high number of eliminations, to tank, which have large amounts of health and are used to draw attention away from weaker teammates. Williams became the stream producer in 2020. After graduation he took over as head coach for the Vikings for the 2021-2022 season.
When asked what the difference between casual gaming and competitive esports was, both Keeler and Wiliams gave the same immediate answer, hardware. To be competitive in modern esports, performance rigs are required, which provide around 160 frames per second, or fps. Average gaming PCs typically have a range of 30-60 fps, some even lower. For many, a PC with that capability is out of reach, but as Williams noted the serious disadvantage of competing with anything less.
“It’s like practicing football with beer goggles and bowling shoes,” Williams said.
Midland made a push after the second season of the program’s existence for performance rigs, and built 12 of these computers for their various teams to compete on.
Providing the right setup for competition is only the first step in building an esports program, as you need players who can make the most out of them. The recruiting process for Midland esports is vastly different from that of any traditional sport, mainly due to the lack of organized high school competition. That hasn’t stopped Williams from finding young players from all across the country to join the team.
“A lot of it has been word of mouth on Discord,” Williams said. “I’m in around 30 Discords whose primary purpose is to hold amateur and collegiate tournaments, nearly every one has a dedicated ‘looking for team option.’ If it’s somebody who is in the skill level and age range of somebody who would be interested in attending college I shoot them a message.”
Discord is an application that allows small or large groups to gather and communicate through text or voice chat rooms.
Esports athletes at the start of their career face an interesting challenge as they try to balance playing a game for fun and for competition. An athlete’s view on a game can drastically change when it becomes a serious competition instead of a hobby they enjoy in their free time.
“It can be really hard to separate the two, especially if you’re trying to casually play a game you competed in for so long,” Keeler said. “It’s definitely something you pick up over time. As you get better, as you improve, your expectations and your mindset change for the better and you can separate the two better.”
Keeler shared a story about playing Overwatch with a girlfriend, where she mistook his loud and fast communication as anger towards her. He described the communication lines in a competitive match as extremely quick gibberish from six people at once that somehow everyone understands. Esports athletes must adapt to this hyper competitive way of playing, but also not lose the enjoyment they get from casually playing their favorite game.
Another challenge faced by an esports team are metas, meaning widely agreed upon strategies that provide the best chance to win.
“In traditional athletics, there’s not a change that says all the sudden quarterbacks aren’t allowed to throw the ball past 40 yards,” Williams said. “Whereas in Overwatch or League of Legends, patches come out weekly, biweekly, and completely change the game.”
The very existence of metas means that coaches and players have to be ready to completely change their gameplan at the drop of a hat. Some meta changes mean buying a different weapon that now does more damage in a round of Valorent, others may require a completely new team composition and mean established strategies no longer work in a competitive setting.
“We scrim[age] the game a lot,” Keeler said, “multiple times a week we try different comps over and over until we find what works for us.”
In its current state, collegiate esports exists almost entirely separate from professional esports. Pro teams can sign a player as soon as they turn 18, similar to the NBA before the introduction of the one-and-done rule.
“Esports is one of those unique sports where you can see athletes retire as soon as age 23,” Williams said. “A lot of those kids joining rosters right at the age of 18 are prodigies that have started to get attraction for their skill at 15 or 16. That said, I do believe there should be more room in the collegiate space, especially as it starts to develop for athletes who are excelling at the collegiate level to advance to that next stage.”
Midland wraps up its esports season with their final Valorant game on Monday and their final League of Legends game at 5:30 p.m. CDT on Friday Apr. 8th. You can watch Midland compete live on Twitch, or watch previous matches and highlights at twitch.tv/midlanduniversity.