JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – The small room packed with gaming computers on the first floor of East Tennessee State University’s Gilbreath Hall might not conjure images of sports tryouts.
But this week, dozens of hopefuls will grace the desktops to vie for a place on the university’s very first varsity eSports team.
Announced last month, program leaders are taking the first steps toward a national competition stage. This week will be full of scrimmages to tease out the best players to compete in Overwatch and League of Legends tournaments.
Ashe Greenberg, a sophomore Biology major, said she’s been on board with the program ever since she heard the first whispers of a competitive eSports team at the university.
“One thing that people don’t really realize is these video games aren’t just like, ‘oh you’re secluding yourself inside your room playing by yourself,’” she said. “These are team games and they’re making students have to cooperate with others and work in a team environment which is a useful life skill overall.”
The popularity of Esports has surged within the last few years. About 100 million people tuned in via YouTube and Twitch to the 2019 League of Legends World Championship in November.
For comparison, that’s about the number of people that watched the Kansas City Chiefs defeat the San Francisco 49ers at the Super Bowl LIV on Sunday.
“eSports in North America has grown a lot over the last 10 years,” ETSU’s eSports interim coach Jeff Shell said. “Per the last Nielson ratings, the competitive North American League of Legends scene is the third most popular sport in the United States after the NBA and the NFL.”
Even though for eSports players, the action takes place on a digital field, gamers are beginning to reap the rewards of their craft. The prize pool can be millions of dollars wide on the world stage, contributing to what has shown to be an industry growing by the billions.
Players for this team will be stacking up against those in Milligan’s eSports team at the end of the month, but interested students will have other opportunities to try out this year: April 13-17 with a tournament on April 18 and July 20-24 with a tournament July 29.
Interim eSports coordinator Brad Engle said the program is starting with Overwatch and League of Legends first, as those two games are the most popular in the competition realm. He said more games will be added to the program as it advances.
He also said that scholarship money will soon be available to eSports players as soon as details are worked out through the financial aid office.
For the future, he and Shell said the goal is to get ETSU eSports into the national spotlight – for now, their eyes are on a national championship in New York this fall.
And they won’t be cooped up in their small room for long – a portion of the renovated Culp Center stands to be dedicated to ETSU’s budding eSports program once it’s finished.
“We kind of serve an underserved portion of the student population at ETSU, people who may not have had the opportunity to get competitive experience because they didn’t grow up playing traditional sports,” Shell said.
“We’re going to be the next great sports program at ETSU.”