UNR Gamers Want To Take Esports To The Varsity Level

Jun 19, 2018

The University of Nevada, Reno’s esports club, Nevada Esports, is one of the largest organizations on campus, and while it isn’t considered a sport at the university, many other schools are adding esports to their rosters.

A few KUNR staff members and I huddle around my monitor in the newsroom as UNR faces off against Boise State in a game called "Overwatch." Characters are running and jumping, colorful explosions are going off, all while the announcers get excited over a close game.

There were six UNR players in that game.

“Before I played Overwatch, I played football in high school,” said sophomore Joey Oliva.

Each player has a different position in the game. Oliva’s role is the support.

He said his main goal is to make sure his teammates stay alive throughout the game.

"[It's] almost kind of like a lineman in the sense that you’re trying to make sure that your teammates can do what they need to--trying to make sure that you're running back can score the touchdown or you're quarterback can throw the ball where they need to," said Oliva.

Overwatch released in 2016 and immediately became an esport. What makes a video game an esport,  as compared to something like "Super Mario Brothers," is that it’s online. It’s competitive and really it's the video game community that deems it to be one. The Overwatch team is one of ten teams under the Nevada Esports flag.

Parker Mason is another teammate on the Overwatch team. He said there is a social stigma that esports are not real sports, because of a lack of physical activity, but more and more universities are recognizing them as such.

“If you look at more the competitive aspect of sport, you can see that esports and regular sports go hand and hand, it's just the tools of the trade are different,” Mason said. “In esports you’re using your reactions and quick thinking to control something on a computer as compared to running really fast or juking someone out.”

There are now dozens of universities across the U.S. that sponsor their esports programs, providing funding and treating the players like varsity athletes.

When asked, UNR athletics said there was no place for them to comment on this story because it does not relate to them. UNR Athletics is affiliated with the NCAA and the NCAA doesn't recognize esports.

There are no known plans to have the club recognized as a sport. But that doesn’t mean interest isn’t growing every year. Every few months, Nevada Esports hosts events that draw a couple hundred students. Teams compete and people gather around bright computer screens in a dark ballroom in the student union.

“I mean, we are representing the school our school in an official capacity to a fairly wide audience," Mason said. "Our match against UNLV last season had 7,000 viewers. And arguably that's more than our volleyball team spectator wise. I think it's kind of unreasonable to not view us as an official varsity team for the school.”

Some of the players on Nevada Esports teams want to be recognized by UNR as an actual sports team instead of just a club. Recognized UNR teams can give out scholarships and have the support they need to be competitive with larger schools in states like California. Tyler Schrote works with the Electronic Gaming Federation, or EGF, an organization that works with high schools and universities to help build successful esports programs.

“You'll find that admins at college are generally a little older and a little less familiar with the esports industry as a whole,” said Schrote. “So we find that students often times end up leading the programs at least initially while the administration kind of figures out what it is.”

Esports has been growing faster than any other form of media. According to Goldman-Sachs, the value of esports grew 150 percent last year while film and TV grew just 29 percent.

“When you put out stats like 250 million people all over the world that watch esports," said Schrote. "[You see] sold out stadiums all over the world like Madison Square Gardens, the Staples Center, or the Mercedes Benz stadium in Germany. All those are very real very tangible examples of how serious the world is about esports."

Along with selling out stadiums, professional players can potentially take home a few million dollars per completion if they win. Many of them also sign sponsorship deals and can even earn team salaries.