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What is collegiate eSports, and why are so many Mid-American Conference member schools so interested in it?

eSports are the future, and all 12 of the schools affiliated with the MAC are at the forefront of making it a legitimate sport.

Members of Buffalo’s eSports organization are engaged in digital battle in the second annual “Overwatch Bowl” held on campus in Buffalo, New York.
University at Buffalo eSports Club

(This article is Part 1 of a series explaining competitive electronic sports [coloquially called esports] and various MAC member schools’ involvement in helping establish it at the collegiate level. In the future, we’ll link to previous works at the top of the page.)

One of the biggest television events of the last couple months wasn’t real.

The participants were in no real danger. The crowd was uniformally entusiastic. The action was red-hot, tempers flared, and a winner was crowned at the end as over a million people tuned in to make it the biggest virtual sports event in television history.

The eNASCAR race ran by iRacing on Fox Network was a watershed moment for the legitimacy of virtual sports in a lot of people’s eyes, as real drivers and real commentary teams got together to make a broadcast and fill the void of sports for an audience shut inside by the coronavirus pandemic.

They certainly were not the first to do something similar; Electronic Arts and ESPN have gotten together several times to host Madden Football tournaments and even a short-lived Madden reality show back in 2005. The CW (owned jointly by CBS and Warner Media) previously held the record for biggest eSports/fighting game tournament broadcast with a televised Mortal Kombat X tournament which attracted 770,000 viewers in 2016.

But those numbers are nothing close to what dedicated electronic sports pull on Twitch and YouTube. The money going into eSports is massive as well, with global revenues reached $906 million in 2019 alone, per the Washington Post.

So, what is eSports, exactly?

In brief, eSports (which is shorthand for electronic sports) can best be described as competitive video gaming. Depending on the game being played, there are different rulesets and formats each team (or individual) must adhere to. Some of the more popular eSports employ similar philosophies to more notable sports, such as football or soccer, where player roles or team gameplans are more apparent, while other eSports are based on individual talent, much like wrestling or track-and-field.

Similar to how boxing has different organizations, every eSports-eligible game has a different sponsoring organization, with some of the most popular leagues being Collegiate League of Legends (cLOL), Collegiate Rainbow Seige 6 (CR6), TESPA, and Collegiate StarLeague (CSL.)

eSports teams classifications can be a bit tricky to define, with the potential for one team having multiple games in multiple divisions, depending on membership numbers and scholarship availability. A Division I varsity team with full scholarships, for instance, can share a building with a Division II club team. This will more-or-less be the case for awhile, as currently, eSports is still largely a blooming industry, especially at the collegiate level.

Over the years, as eSports has become more of an emerging community, college organizations have sprung up organically to help push the next generation of eSports competitors (colloquially called called gamers,) coaches and “support” helpers (think of them as some combination of a scouting department and an IT crew.)

The schools within what constitutes the membership of the Mid-American Conference has been at the forefront of legitimizing eSports as a collegiate sport offering, with all 12 full-time members having at least one varsity squad, and attaining membership with eSports Collegiate Conference [ESC] as their official “eSports partner organization.”

The MAC has experienced great success in the limited time they’ve been in the scene. Miami has the unique distinction of being the first varsity eSports team at the collegiate level and were crowned Overwatch national champions in 2017, while Akron is the back-to-back defending national champion in Rocket League.

A handful of full-time members have dedicated financial help to growing eSports on campus, most notably the University of Akron, which unveiled its plans to make the world’s biggest eSports facility back in 2019, using InfoCision Stadium as part of the schematic. Buffalo, Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan are in the midst of transitioning club eSports programs into varsity offerings as well, complete with facility construction and full-time staff hires.

It’s certainly not a surprise that collegiate eSports has been on the fast track to development if you look at the professional eSports circuit.

The 2019 League of Legends World Championship Finals drew in over 100 million unique viewers between Twitch and YouTube, with a steady audience of about 600,000 watching the stream. Those numbers surpassed the Super Bowl that season, making it the most watched sports broadcast in 2019. It was also three times the audience the same event received back in 2013, which gained 32 million unique viewers, and approximately 16 times the audience of the same event in 2012.

League of Legends, a “massive multiplayer online game” predicated on creating clans and traversing through battle arenas and dungeons, isn’t even the biggest eSport in the world as of right now. Counter Strike: Global Offensive, a five-on-five war simulator, drew 66.5 million hours on Twitch, with 30 percent of that share in an official eSports capacity, per Newzoo.

(To give you a sense of scale for the popualrity of eSports streaming, Fortnite, perhaps the most mainstream video game on the market which has a eSports affiliation, doesn’t even hit the Top 10 games in market share.)

This is perhaps the reason MAC-affiliated universities are so interested in getting ahead of the curve.

As a membership known for its progressive nature, getting ahead of other universities gives them a unique opportunity to get into the market early, and for the most part, it looks to have worked, as multiple programs have won national titles and are getting funds from their universities to pursue it as a varsity sport.

With university enrollment flagging at most MAC members, perhaps investing in future entertainment options is a way to recruit students to campus, much like how having Division I football or basketball might influence some others to make their decisions.

At current, the MAC itself doesn’t officially acknowledge eSports as a “varsity” sport sponsored by the universities, but all indications are that a formal partnership is expected to be announced sooner rather than later.

It’s still a bit of a Wild Wild West in terms of how exactly teams are set up, as eSports itself is still largely figuring out how to organize its events, but the chaotic nature is part of the appeal, especially for an initiative that’s young and developing.

It’s a fascinating development, and one which deserves more investigation.

In our next installment, we’ll start introducing you to some of the players who represent your favorite MAC schools and have them explain the games they play.