When people envision sporting events, they might imagine the deafening cheers of fans, a packed stadium and the smell of popcorn and Runzas. But what about the clicks of a keyboard and rapid-fire communication between players seated in front of computer monitors?
The digital world of competitive esports is unfamiliar to many people in Nebraska, but it is becoming a reality for high schools and universities throughout the nation.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has multiple student organizations participating in esports, like the League of Legends Club and Nebraska Esports. Additionally, UNL’s intramural sports began their weekly esports leagues on March 22, encouraging students to virtually engage with one another after spring classes moved online because of the pandemic.
“We have been able to navigate everything pretty well,” said Logan Kahler, an intramural sports project assistant. “It was difficult at times to communicate scores and opponents, but we did OK concerning the circumstances.”
Kahler, a fan of sports-based video games, began working with the weekly esports tournaments when he was setting up equipment for one of the events. He said it just blossomed from there.
“Our goal within intramurals is to allow people to find their community here on campus; and for us, sports is the outlet most of the time,” Kahler said. “With esports, we are able to reach a community that might not be as interested in sports, and allow them to have an outlet here on campus that allows them to meet with others.”
Kahler said that last Friday’s “Madden 20” tournament had higher numbers than past weeks. Due to COVID-19, events are held in places where there isn’t a lot of foot traffic, and audiences are limited. Nevertheless, Kahler said that participants stay and watch the tournaments, even after they are eliminated in the competition. Winning teams go home with a championship t-shirt.
“I think students on campus currently are yearning for something to do while they are here, and we are doing what we can to fill that void in a safe manner,” Kahler said.
Students can participate in weekly leagues featuring games such as “FIFA 20,” “NHL 20,” “NBA 2K,” “Rocket League,” “MLB The Show 20,” and “Madden 20.” Students who want to compete in the tournaments can sign up through the Intramural Leagues portal, or contact the Sports Programs office if they want to become further involved in the program.
The UNL College of Journalism and Mass Communications attempted to host the Super Smash Showdown last spring. The tournament was arranged by Adam Wagler, an advertising and public relations professor.
“It was bringing the developer community in to mix with the people that actually play video games just to kind of have a space for UNL to explore some new stuff,” Wagler said. “It was very student driven.”
According to Wagler, 100 people were going to play at the tournament before UNL canceled the event in March because of COVID-19. The event was slated to offer casual gaming stations and demos from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Game Development Club. Wagler said the features attracted about double the number of the tournament participants.
“We were going for more like the party game type stuff so that people that weren’t super serious gamers could feel welcome and could actually play and participate,” Wagler said.
Wagler said he sees a lot of opportunity in the esports area at UNL and in Nebraska.
“There’s an obvious community that’s interested in gaming, and students are interested in being streamers or being YouTube content creators,” Wagler said. “There’s a niche there that a lot of students already have experience in, and if we can be a catalyst to bring those students together, we can give it some weight. I think that’s something to explore.”
While the University of Nebraska at Kearney offers similar tournaments to UNL’s, the University of Nebraska-Omaha campus does not have a major esports presence. The mecca of esports in Nebraska is at Midland University, located in Fremont.
Midland began its competitive esports program in 2016, becoming the region’s first university to launch a varsity esports league. The program was originally Midland’s successful gaming club, but demand elevated it to a competitive team.
“By offering scholarships in esports, we believe we will attract skilled competitors while expanding access to high quality education for a new generation of students,” said Midland University President Jody Horner on the university’s website.
Members of the teams compete in various games such as “League of Legends,” “Overwatch,” “Hearthstone” and “Rocket League” in a specially designed esports arena.
Nicholas Allen, an arts management major from Missouri Valley, Iowa, is one of the team members.
“When I was applying to Midland, I had no idea about the program,” Allen said.
Allen said he has been a part of the esports program for two and a half years, since the spring semester of his freshman year. He plays on the varsity “Rocket League” team and the junior varsity “Overwatch” team.
“Esports is changing not just college sports, but even high school sports,” Allen said. “It has everything a ‘normal’ sport would take. It can be more mentally draining on esports players than other sports, if [esports players] don’t have the right mindset.”
According to Allen, his favorite part of being on the team is bonding with other players. A big part of any sport is getting to know teammates, and Allen said that getting to know each player made the sporting experience more exhilarating.
“I personally believe there should be more involvement for esports in colleges all around the world, not just Nebraska itself,” Allen said. “With the new amount of freshmen we got just this year for our teams, I could see Midland becoming a huge advocate, and maybe a good place for esports athletes to come.”