Making ‘play’ pay

Parents can stop worrying about all that time their children spend playing video games:

What once served as a distraction from school work can now be a ticket to education. Just ask members of the new eSports team at Columbia College.

The school is the fifth in the country to start offering scholarships to gamers. The school has two teams, each with five players and alternates, that play in the Collegiate Starleague (CSL). The competitive campus series is a product of the University League of Legends, a network of more than 300 student-run clubs with a passion for playing the online game League of Legends. In the game, players choose a champion from a cast of over 100 available characters and then work together to strategically bring down an opposing team.

Growing up, none of the 11 founding members of Columbia’s team thought they’d ever go to school to play video games.

Columbia Cougars eSports player Dean Wood plays during a team match at the Columbia College Game Hut on Monday, Nov. 7, 2016.

“I didn’t imagine it was something I could get a scholarship for,” freshman Jake Rincones said.

Everyone at freshman Gabe Eckenroth’s high school was “shocked” when they found out the soccer standout was going to college to play League of Legends, he said.

“When I was in my sophomore (and) junior year, I was in the top 200 in North America,” Eckenroth said. “I always thought maybe I could go semi-pro. By the end of my junior year, beginning of senior year, I realized, ‘Wow, this is actually going to develop as a big deal.’”

Freshman Jon Song comes from a family of “huge gamers” and said he feels fortunate to be in “the right place, right time” to be a part of the evolution of gaming as a collegiate sport.

The school’s new eSports seemed like a logical step given students’ affinity for gaming, said Columbia College President Scott Dalyrmple.

“The growth of competitive video gaming over the past few years has been exponential, and a key insight into the current generation is that they like to watch each other play,” Dalrymple said. “Our eSports program is a logical way to connect with today’s students. A few years from now, it will seem strange for a college not to have an eSports program.”

As a part of the university league, the Cougars compete against other schools playing League of Legends.

“It’s five-on-five, working together to destroy the enemy before they destroy you,” Song explained. “I like how different every game is. The game is always moving. It’s like a hockey game. You have to be able to execute fast.”

Columbia Cougars eSports player Connor Doyle waits between matches at the Columbia College Game Hut on Monday, Oct. 24, 2016. Doyle was the first player to sign to the new team.

It is simultaneously challenging and exciting to be on the ground floor of a new program, said head coach Duong Pham.

The Cougars find themselves playing against schools such as Oklahoma State University, Michigan State University and the University of Texas, “many that we would never have a chance to play in other sports,” Pham said. “And we beat them, too. We have very talented individuals. Each of them is very, very good at what they do. I think we’re doing great at putting the team together knowing each player’s strengths and building synergy around that.”

The first player to sign with the Cougars, junior Connor Doyle, said he picked Columbia College for several reasons. It was the school’s first year for eSports, he liked the challenge of playing a leadership role and, after talking to other schools, “I realized my personal goals and their goals were aligned,” Doyle said.

Although League of Legends is a collaborative game, most of Columbia’s eSports athletes come to the team more comfortable playing on their own and meeting up with other players virtually on the internet. Adjusting to playing as an actual team has been an adjustment.

“It’s almost a completely new game,” Doyle said. “It changes it from ‘How good am I?’ to ‘How well can we play together? How can we, as five parts, work together?’ It changes it from very mechanical to very strategic, almost like chess.”

In the past, Doyle enjoyed the mechanics of the game most. Now, he said, the best part is the feeling he gets when his team wins a close game. “You see the victory scene, and everybody lets out the scream everyone’s been holding in for 50 minutes,” he said. “That feeling is untouchable.”

Eckenroth, who describes himself as a mechanically skilled player, agrees that his favorite aspect of the game used to be besting other players. “I had to learn how to talk” to my teammates, he said. “I’m one of the more experienced players, so I’m going to be someone who is more of a shot-caller. I give them ideas of what they could do.”

Building chemistry is something the coaching staff has tried to emphasize since bringing the team together in August, Pham said. In addition to spending hours each day in game play, review and analysis, the players regularly play team sports to facilitate team-building and physical training. “You have to be close to your team. They have to play with each other, know each other,” Pham said.

Some of the elite League of Legends schools look down on the Cougars as a less-established and weaker team, Doyle said. But he and his teammates use it as motivation.

“To be able to come in as an underdog is a really strategic advantage,” he said. “It’s really motivation and work ethic. We practice longer and harder. If you want to be the best, you have to work at it.”

It’s an advantage the Cougars have used to make a strong showing. Halfway through its premier season, the team is undefeated and is ranked No. 1 in the North 4 division.