A League of Their Own: Marist eSports

Collegiate athletics is always changing and athletic departments are constantly adapting to bring in the right student-athletes. Year by year, more athletic departments across the country are adapting to a new type of athlete, one that does not run, jump or lift weights. This athlete is a gamer, a true gamer that sits in front of a screen using their quick twitch fingers to control the virtual world.

At the IEM World Championships last year, 173,000 fans filled the stadium and attended a surrounding festival and online the event had 46 million unique visitors. Game 7 of the NBA Finals in 2016 had 31 million viewers. The National Collegiate Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) was founded for intercollegiate competition between schools and is separate from the NCAA, but provides similar services that involve rule guidelines and scholarships. eSports is growing rapidly and athletic departments are paying attention, but progress can be slow – as it is here at Marist College.

At the IEM World Championships last year, 173,000 fans filled the stadium and attended a surrounding festival and online the event had 46 million unique visitors. Game 7 of the NBA Finals in 2016 had 31 million viewers. Photo courtesy of Marist eSports team.

The attention that athletic departments pay to their teams is something that can allude a sense of pride that a school has for their sports. The way that they are marketed, encouraged and represented is one thing, but it starts with a certain level of support on the financial end. Without it, a team, organization or even a club can run into serious difficulty in terms of logistical operations and facilities.

It’s no secret that universities at the Division I level spend large sums of school funds on their athletic programs. From travel expenses, to uniforms and facilities, to coaching salaries and marketing; the list seems to run endlessly. A 2013 article from USA Today noted that the Knight Commission study found, “Division I schools with football [programs] spent $91,936 per athlete in 2010, seven times the spending per student of $13,628. Division I universities without football spent $39,201 per athlete, more than triple the average student spending.” Again, this was never a secret. Schools spend money on their athletics, some more than others, but it’s a constant across the country.

What you normally don’t see is a lone conference champion go unfunded, no matter the college.  For the Marist eSports team, also recognized as the inaugural ECAC MAAC Champions this year, that’s reality.

“I firmly believe we put in the same amount of hours if not more than the average DI athlete,” freshman team support David De Vera said. “We have three scrimmages a week, which can take anywhere from three to four hours each, and we have our individual practice requirement of 14 games per week…which take roughly 10 hours total.” It’s a commitment to an activity and a sport, similar to that of say a soccer or basketball player.

On top of these weekly requirements, the squad’s in-season games occur over weekends. Each can take roughly three to four hours to complete. This adds to a grand total of roughly 26 weekly hours of, in De Vera’s words, “high-level gameplay, which is draining…Any form of support from [athletics] would be highly appreciated from our players.”

Junior attack damage carry member, Christian Isolda, has been part of the team since its inception in 2015. At that time, the team consisted of six total members, run by team leader and now Marist graduate, Michael O’Rourke. Since then, it has been handed down to Isolda, and the team has grown its squad to a total of nine members.  They also began competing in tournaments against other schools. “We go to [the tournament site], set up on stage… and you create your own server space and then play other teams through there.”

This sounds strikingly similar to a variety of other sports. There are multiple team members who practice both with each other and on their own time to perfect their gameplay, and there are weekly matches where the Red Foxes take on opponents from all over the east coast, and eventually play fellow MAAC teams in conference tournament play. The only difference is in how they prepare. While a basketball player may hit the gym after practice to improve his strength or run drills to improve his ball-handling, e-sport athletes strategize on how to better control the map. It’s the same as a football player working on his blocking compared to a cross-country runner working on his or her endurance. Three out of the four sports mentioned above are funded by the Athletic department at Marist College.  And yet the Marist eSports team is the lone champion this season.

“It’s very tough to just generate a Division I level, competitive team out of thin air,” explained Jon Louie, who is currently in his first year as Marist coordinator of Intramural and Club sports. “Here on campus, one of the steps [to getting a Division I team] is developing it as a club first, before converting it from that level.”

The team’s optimism was something that really impressed Louie, but he made it clear that there is much more that goes into the inception of a DI team from one that began as a club. Not only that, but the team’s club status has already been cemented. Just not on the athletics side.

“At this point, it doesn’t make much sense for them to pull out of their Marist Game Society club into a sport club,” Louie said. “They’re already a club. They’re already performing club activities in that light. What we are doing is offering them the opportunity to play in some tournaments, much like we do our other teams and clubs.”

The popularity of the sport itself is something that is “on the incline,” as Louie noted. Isolda expanded on that saying, “The developer of the league has a professional league which is franchised now… MLB, NBA teams own [their own teams].”

The Marist Game Society, to Louie’s understanding, has created multiple teams so that all students have the ability to explore gaming on a level that is not simply ‘for fun,’ per say. The eSports team has been given different opportunities than other smaller teams within the club, but nevertheless, their gamers want to further their opportunities.

Multiple hours per week. Domination at an inaugural tournament. A sport that has seen rising in popularity in recent years, but still a club. It makes sense right now, but down the line? There will come a time where the hard work and success simply cannot remain at the club level. Athletic teams are expected to win and to achieve success. As long as the Marist eSports team continues to do just that, they feel they deserve to be recognized, and rightfully so.

“The sport is picking up in regards to other schools,” Isolda said. “Now that we have some recognition and some publicity towards it, I think [our team] could be good for Marist Athletics to explore and consider.”

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