SIOUX CITY | Jared Amundson’s love of the online video game “League of Legends” didn’t start with the best of circumstances.
“I got hurt playing football and had nothing else to do,” said the Morningside College sophomore. “My friend said, ‘Hey, you should come play this game with me.’”
About five years later, Amundson plays the game as an athlete for Morningside’s newest sport – eSports, a form of competition usually performed through electronic consoles and videogames.
This semester marks the college’s first foray into eSports. Professor Dean Stevens said the sport’s popularity has skyrocketed in just a handful of years. Now, gamers gather from all over the world for championship tournaments, and thousands watch online.
“I thought, this is something we could very easily do at Morningside,” he said.
As a member of the team, athletes can snag a $5,000-per-year scholarship, provided they submit a video of their game play and complete an interview with Stevens.
Stevens said it took some convincing of Morningside’s administrators to provide the space and funding for the club. But support grew when a group unrelated to Morningside’s team presented National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, or NAIA, brass with a pledge to start an eSports league.
Stevens said administrators began to see the benefits the sport could provide to students, and the program was born.
Clicks and the occasional cussword fill the air in the eSports Nexus, a room in Morningside’s Roadman Hall. This is where the roster of 12 gathers almost every day to grow individually and as a team.
The noise level increases as the game progresses. Conversation becomes more tense. Mouse clicks and keyboard taps become more vigorous.
But that’s all part of what makes eSports a team event.
“You can hear a lot of the communication is jargon,” he said, over the excited chatter from a couple of players. “It’s understood lingo that’s going on.”
Athletes can choose from two games; “League of Legends,” a team battle-oriented game focused on destroying the opponent’s “nexus”; and “Overwatch,” a team-oriented first-person shooter game where the goal is essentially a capture-the-flag format.
Right now, Stevens said the roster of 12 members is becoming familiar with playing as a team. Teams, he said, will consist of five or six Morningsiders. They will compete against groups from other colleges and organizations.
Team play provides a unique angle of videogames. It takes strategizing, communication and problem solving, not just clicks and rash actions.
Stevens added that a lot of skills required to succeed in the game reflect attributes needed in real life.
“I think these are skills they will learn and take into the next phase of their life whether that be the workplace, or graduate school…these things will still be important to them,” he said. “Building trust, teamwork, learning to manage conflicts. These are all things that can be learned in this room.”
Freshman Dylan Bade hasn’t played “Overwatch” much on an organized team. He said he usually plays online with strangers or people he’s met through the game, but not in the same room as teammates.
The team aspect heightens the importance of playing together, not individually, he said.
This semester, the team plays as a club group, learning the ropes and participating in some scrimmages. Their first scrimmage is this week, against Pratt Community College of Kansas. Next year is when the team will jump from club to intercollegiate competition.
They’ll have a schedule of matches and compete in professional tournaments as a member of the National Collegiate Athletic eSports Association. Stevens said the season will likely run from November to February.
Stevens said he hopes that each player is of equal ranking once competitions start next year.
The Nexus is where the team will practice and play. A former ICN room turned into a storage area, the room now contains a dozen gaming computers.
Each player has a tie to his computer. Stevens said students were required to build the computer from a kit provided by the school.
Each machine costs about $1,000, plus the monitor.
“I wanted a way to generate interest and a sense of ownership,” said Stevens. “Now they know what’s in there. They’re going to take this machine with them into the virtual battlefield and that’s a lot of fun.”
That ownership is reflected through slips of white paper with black text affixed on the top of the computer monitors. Each paper bears the “name” given to the computer by the builder.
Bade named his Kyoko, after a character from his favorite anime series.
Stevens said each computer is equipped with high-grade video cards, plenty of RAM, and a specialized hard drive. Keyboards have special keys to line up where the players most often position their hands.
“The peripherals are designed specifically for video games,” he said.
Until recently, the athletes needed to go off campus to play the game and have access to a reliable internet connection. Stevens said the Nexus is near the source of the internet, so the players don’t have to worry about lag or dropping connection.
Stevens hopes in the future that the matches in which the students play can be projected on screens for fellow teammates and even spectators to watch.
To say this is the athletes’ first chance to play competitively is a tad inaccurate.
“I’m competitive in anything,” said first-year Morningside student Trenton Jordan. “Whether it be the first one to brush your teeth, I’m competitive in anything.”
Competitiveness is a requirement to be a team member, as it is in any sport. Students must be able to prove they are adept players in either game before they become a member of the team. Their prowess is gauged through not just their rank, but how they demonstrate critical thinking and problem solving.
Stevens said those skills are vital in making the transition from individual to team players.
Playing as a team is a new aspect to the individuals. It has taken some learning to adapt. But much like basketball or football, Stevens said each student brings his own strengths to the team and it’s a matter of making those strengths mesh.
“As a five-person team, there’s different strategies involved than if you’re throwing in with a bunch of strangers,” he said. “The whole idea of them working as a team, communicating as a team, that can be something that’s very special but it takes a lot of time, a lot of practice and a lot of trust.”
At the core of each player, regardless of background, is a passion for video games. Jordan said he’s been playing games about as long as he’s been able to walk.
Derek Delzell, a math and computer science double major from Sioux City, said he’s been a loyal player of League of Legends since the game began about eight years ago. He doesn’t really remember how he found the game, but knows that it’s positively affected his life.
“I’ve been able to meet people and evolve friendships through it,” he said.