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The Journal Gazette

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Trine University's ethletes compete in varsity eSports at the MTI Center on the Angola campus.

Sunday, January 28, 2018 1:00 am

Interest increasing in eSports

Competition in video games recruiting tool for Trine student body

JUSTIN A. COHN | The Journal Gazette

Sixty-five of them are at Trine. Some of them were recruited to be there for their ability to compete and to win. They spend much of their time on campus practicing for competitions, which have the added pressure of being watched by spectators. They are coached, critiqued and if they're good enough, they could even make a career out of it.

If it sounds like these are athletes, well, you're close. At Trine, they call them “ethletes,” and they're part of the fledgling eSports program that was launched last fall.

If you're of a certain age, or can't tell an RPG from an RPM, you may not know that eSports is competitive video gaming and it's become big business.

Not only is it so in style that major sports leagues like the NBA and Major League Soccer are launching their own franchises, but colleges like Trine are realizing that eSports are attractive to potential students, can integrate with athletics departments and excite campuses in newfound ways.

“Any sort of small private school is looking for any sort of enrollment boosters or retention boosters, and I thought it would be an excellent avenue to take a look at,” said Alex Goplin, who was Trine's assistant director of admission before he also became the director of eSports at the Angola school.

Although most of the members of the eSports teams were already on campus, 20 are new students who were recruited to be part of five squads that play “League of Legends,” “Overwatch,” “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” “Defense of the Ancients 2,” and “Rocket League.”

Trine was able to boast to potential gamers about the state-of-the-art MTI Center that recently opened with 30 gaming stations.

“I had a sample machine in my office that I was able to show students,” Goplin said. “We didn't have a facility yet or official teams. We had an artist rendering of what the MTI center was going to look like and I explained to them where the direction of the program was going. I was able to get about 20 new students over the first year and we hit the ground running and haven't looked back.”

Some team members were drawn to the school's engineering programs, including computer studies and software development, but Goplin said “it's a melting pot here at Trine” and there are many different majors among his players.

They have the chance to affect the direction of eSports, including the very games that are played.

“I kind of gauged the interest of what the current students were playing and what they wanted to compete in and that was kind of the launching pad,” Goplin said. “I've told the recruits that if we don't have X number of players for a specific game, we may have in the future.”

Other games that have been talked about include “Smite,” “Hearthstone,” “Heroes of the Storm” and “StarCraft.” While those may not be household games, more familiar “Call of Duty,” “FIFA” or even Madden could be down the road.

Admittedly, when people watch Trine's eSports teams, they don't always know what they're seeing, Goplin said, but they seem to like watching it.

“We have a lot of people that come and stop by,” he said. “Generally we have basketball games at the same time. There are a lot of people on campus, whether they are students or community members, and a lot of them walk past and find themselves sitting down and watching for 15, 20 minutes and even miss part of the basketball games.”

The audience for eSports nationally has grown more than 40 percent over the last two years and annual revenue is in the neighborhood of $1 billion. A professional “Overwatch” league – that's a first-person shooter (an RPG, by the way, is a role playing game) – includes owners like the New England Patriots' Robert Kraft, New York Mets' Jeff Wilpon and Sacramento Kings' Andy Miller at $20 million each, while NBA teams like the Indiana Pacers have unveiled NBA 2K franchises.

Some of the eSports terminology is similar to those of, say, a typical football program – there are recruiting and coaches – but the methodology is different. When Goplin scouts, it's not exactly like he watches the game from the stands and determines the quarterback potential.

“It is definitely a little different. We rely on a lot of media blasts, that sort of thing, and social media, to get the word out that we have a program and what we're doing here at Trine,” he said. “That's been the base start of recruiting. Some of the new eSports recruiting websites as well, which I think a lot of students are being filtered to now, there's a place for high schoolers to be recruited because there isn't necessarily a roster that we can go off of at high schools like other sports.”

As with any other sport, good players can usually be gleaned by their statistics, and they often have highlight reels that can be found online.

“Some students have tape,” Goplin said. “Some students have their own Twitch accounts or YouTube channels. But all of these games have rankings and endless amounts of statistics that you can pore over and tell the ranks of different students and where they fit in the program, if they would be on one of our top-tier teams or one of the lower-level teams.”

Through Twitch, a live-streaming video platform, one can watch Trine's competitions or practices; it's a far-cry from a closed practice a basketball coach might prefer.

“Some schools could watch our strategies, but I'd rather build on the national level than worry about that right now,” said Goplin, who has an assistant director of eSports, Patrick Ridout, and a coach, Robbie Scheckellhoff, each of whom is in charge of managing different games' teams.

They do break down film of opposing teams, critique their own past games and scrimmage to get ready for matches.

Trine hasn't really developed any rivalries yet, but it's certainly aware that nearby Indiana Tech has teams competing in “Hearthstone” and “League of Legends.”

The National Association of Collegiate eSports governs eSports, not the NCAA, and the rules on amateurism aren't as scrutinized – yet. A top gamer could potentially share secrets with paying customers, for example.

“Right now, eSports at the collegiate level is kind of like the Wild, Wild West. There's a gray area between amateurism and professionals,” Goplin said. “We have played schools that have students who are playing professionally as well. If it does go NCAA someday, that may change. With NACE, they are trying to define what a varsity program is and solidify that maybe move toward that amateurism side of things.”

Right now, there's nothing typical about Trine's newest athletes – err, ethletes – except the amount of work it takes to be a part of the team.

“They put all the time and effort, all the necessary items that a traditional athletic person does,” Goplin said. “They hone their craft like them, just minus the cardio side of things, and they're just like any other athlete as far as I'm concerned.”

jcohn@jg.net