When Pong, the world’s first commercial video game, hit the market in 1958, it would have been hard to predict that its gaming descendants would be at the center of intense competitions and a multibillion-dollar industry.
Esports, or competitive, multiplayer video gaming, exploded on the professional level around 2013, followed by the collegiate scene in 2016.
As esports becomes increasingly popular, both among amateurs playing with friends and professionals competing for large cash prizes, many have questioned whether it is, in fact, a “sport.”
Kenneth Lam, Florida Tech’s director of esports spearheading the university’s new program, comes to Florida Tech from Maryville University in St. Louis, where he helped start one of the top collegiate esports programs in the country.
During Lam’s three years serving as Maryville Esports’ assistant director while earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the team won three League of Legends national championships and went to the collegiate world championships in China twice.
Developing a team of this caliber from nonexistence has enabled Lam to really know the intricacies of the collegiate esports realm—including its similarities to traditional sports.
“It’s not just five or six kids who are playing on the team, and that’s it,” Lam says. “When it comes to the whole industry, you have professional organizations, like in traditional sports.”
Like the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, for example, which has a general manager, coaching staff, analysts, production teams, etc., he says.
Lam is designing Florida Tech’s esports program, housed in the student life office, to work in much the same way. He’s engaging students to take on roles in esports management, coaching, communication, partnerships and events.
Esports is also slated to both provide and take advantage of Florida Tech’s academic resources—for example, allowing players to serve as behavioral analysis research subjects and reaping the benefits of the evaluation.
“So, ‘sports,’ yes, is a simple term,” he says. “But there is a lot more that it entails.”
To get Florida Tech’s inaugural esports teams started, Lam has tapped into various existing student-run esports clubs and organizations on campus, meeting with them and getting to know their interests, skill levels and potential.
To build the program, he will host tryouts in various games, including League of Legends, Overwatch, Rocket League, Valorant and others, as interest allows. Then, teams will be required to participate in rigorous practice schedules before competing in intercollegiate preseason and season competitions.
As the esports industry develops, particularly at the collegiate level, there are still a lot of unknowns.
“The biggest difference and challenge is that in traditional sports, no one owns the ball,” Lam says. “No one owns the basketball or the hockey puck. Theoretically, if I have the money and the structure, I could start another NFL without problem.”
In esports, however, companies that developed the games that people compete in own the games’ intellectual property rights, giving them final say on where, when and how their games are used. This often poses obstacles for groups trying to establish governing agencies, host competitions, offer worthwhile prizes and more.
“In these early days, it’s kind of like the Wild West,” Lam says. “But the ultimate goal is just to build better programs all around—starting with the U.S., and eventually, the rest of the world, as opportunity arises.”
Split-second decision-making. Endurance. Resilience.
Much like collegiate and professional athletes in traditional sports, esports players need a high level of mental fortitude and preparation to succeed.
They achieve it the same way, too: practice.
Typically, collegiate esports players practice three to four times a week as a team and spend varying amounts of time improving on their own. From working with coaches and analyzing data and previous game footage to emphasizing technique and execution, dedication is key because the kind of split-second decisions required while playing esports must be near instinctual.
On top of that, pressure rises during competitions, where the stakes—be they reputation, prize money, prestige or team victory—are high. And like traditional collegiate and pro sporting events that draw vast crowds, both in the stands and behind the television screens, depending on the competition level, esports draws virtual crowds of up to millions of viewers.
Inevitably, though, players—traditional and esports—make mistakes.
Whether it costs them a few points, the game or the entire competition, they are trained to handle that, too, and to approach whatever’s next with the speed, focus and resilience only an athlete understands.
“At the end of the day, you are competing through a different medium, but the brainpower you use throughout the game and what you endure mentally is the same,” Lam says.
In and of themselves, video games can be isolating.
All you need is a game, a machine, a screen and a controller of some sort, and you’re set for hours of entertainment—alone.
While the ability to play without physically present playmates is likely appealing to some, the esports industry has established a network of likeminded individuals connected by a compelling interest: gaming.
When Lam enrolled at Maryville to pursue his undergraduate degree in actuarial science, he casually enjoyed playing video games. His then acquaintance, now friend and mentor, asked if he would like to help run the university’s burgeoning esports program. He agreed, thinking it would be a fun extracurricular activity.
Instead, through esports, he found friendship, camaraderie, a community.
“College is a place where you come to learn more about yourself, discover who you are and what you want to do,” he says. “Esports is just another means for students to get to know themselves and engage with others.”
While the esports industry is not where Lam originally saw his career heading, he loves his job.
“It’s fairly crazy,” Lam says. “Esports was just an interest, and then I realized this could actually be both a hobby and a job, which is hard to come by.”
Lam has never played on an esports team, instead working on the management side of the industry. But the camaraderie—what he considers the best part of the field—extends to everyone involved in an esports organization.
“You see these people every day, pretty much, and get to watch these students grow,” he says. “Being able to see other people’s growth—that’s what keeps me going.”
So, is esports a sport?
The competitive nature, mental endurance, arduous practice schedule, strategic execution and expert ability required to succeed on a professional level in esports is so akin to traditional athletics that even the International Olympics Committee has considered including it as an Olympic event.
Many, however, including the Olympics committee, argue that esports lack one simple trait inherent in traditional athletics: physical activity, which they argue eliminates it from the “sport” classification.
Lam has his own opinions.
“To me, it just doesn’t really matter.”
If you are interested in getting involved with Florida Tech Esports, complete the interest form.