A League of Their Own
Mid-Missouri colleges blaze the national esports trail.
Years ago, it was football. It was basketball. It was baseball. It was the threat of any sport-related scholarship undermining academics for the sake of athletics. Connecting collegiate funding to sports bucked the historical education system.
“About a hundred years ago, people were rolling their eyes at the very idea of collegiate athletics,” says Columbia College President Dr. Scott Dalrymple. “People went to school to study serious things. The idea that someone could get a scholarship to play football? They thought it was silly.”
Today, those notions are long since buried, yet collegiate esports — electronic sports involving video game competition — have generated some newfound uncertainty, causing history to repeat itself. After personally leading the charge to adopt an esports team at Columbia College, complete with scholarship opportunities, Dalrymple wants to set the record straight.
“The thirst for competition is the lifeblood of esports”
Matt Meininger, Columbia College Assistant Esports Coach
“Let me ask you this,” he says. “What is inherently more noble or academic about the ability to dunk a basketball over the ability to play one of these video games particularly well? What’s the distinction exactly?”
It is that kind of attitude and dedication to the sport that has helped secure national recognition for Columbia College’s esports team, evidenced by its top three spot in ESPN’s first-ever Top 25 College “League of Legends” rankings, released in mid-March. Not only that, but the school also hosts the largest annual gaming convention in the Midwest.
But Columbia College is not the sole school in the region to embrace esports and allocate scholarship funding to such a program. Both Stephens College and Maryville University also have their own teams, and the University of Missouri recently announced its plans to launch an esports program this fall.
“The world has voted,” Dalrymple says. “esports is a thing.” A thing that multiple Missouri colleges have refused to ignore or incorrectly label as a passing fad. A thing that has drawn collegiate-level interest and funding. A thing that is causing universities across the country to offer esports players a league of their own.
More Than Just A Game
Walking inside Columbia College’s Game Hut is a step into another world. It’s dark, but lights hang from the ceiling to illuminate the computers lining the walls. Ferocious, yet strategic, clicking and typing echo throughout while a Han Solo carbonite statue stands guard over the room from one of the corners. Focused faces outlined by heavy-duty headsets are captivated by the video game “League of Legends,” although the term “video game” might not be adequate here. There is a serious competition happening in this facility.
Duong Pham, Columbia College’s founding esports head coach, who has recently transitioned from the role, describes the difference. “Casual gaming is relaxing and fun,” he says. “Competitive gaming is intense, stressful and mentally and physically taxing. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to be good at the game.”
The school’s assistant esports coach, Matt Meininger, says the same. “The thirst for competition is the lifeblood of esports,” he says. “So, esports isn’t just gaming; it’s a subset of gaming that focuses on competition.”
Kevin Reape, interim head coach of Mizzou’s future esports team, concurs that esports is much more involved than people simply playing a video game by themselves. “It is the competitive side of the game, played with a team, where being the best is only possible with intense focus, speed and communication,” he says. “esports is a lot more similar to your traditional sport than most realize. Being the best takes just as much hard work as any other college sport.”
The hard work required of esports athletes and coaches includes the same basic practices that define all college-level athletic programs: recruiting, coaching, practicing, competing and even physical training. Columbia native Bob Hanson, a senior on Columbia College’s varsity esports team, and his teammate, Evan Lawson, a sophomore and transfer student-athlete, take turns describing their daily practices, which last around four to five hours each. A typical practice includes an administrative meeting, a team dinner, scrimmage blocks consisting of three games at one hour apiece and, finally, video footage reviews where coaches follow up by identifying and correcting any mistakes that might have occurred during those games.
“Esports athletes are coached in a similar way as traditional sports,” Pham says. “We identify our strengths and weaknesses as a team, then work to improve them. The three main categories we work on as a team, and as individuals, are skills, teamwork and communication. These are also the criteria we look for in prospects when recruiting.”
Teamwork is also essential when it comes to recruiting, Meininger says. “Many of our players know each other through the game, and it helps us to find new recruits,” he adds. Once the right recruits for the program are identified, Columbia College then offers scholarship packages of differing levels based on overall skill and previous achievements.
Mizzou’s future esports program plans to operate in the same way. “Scholarship opportunities are still being developed, and offerings will vary from student to student,” Reape says. “For the first time ever, some students will be attending the University of Missouri and have a portion of their tuition covered by participating in esports.”
Another essential component of collegiate esports is physical training, which is intended to promote not only healthy lifestyles but a thriving, teamwork-oriented atmosphere. On top of multiple workouts per week, Columbia College’s esports athletes host a special practice each Tuesday that is dedicated to playing another sport. Soccer, dodgeball, basketball and ultimate Frisbee are all frequently used to achieve this “off-screen” bonding.
“If we’re playing one of those games together, we have to be a team,” Lawson says. “It helps us to learn those teambuilding skills.”
Such activities have led to a multifaceted maturation of the Columbia College esports team as a whole and at the individual level. “Before gaming, I really didn’t like socializing,” Hanson says. “I used to be a pretty introverted person, and I wouldn’t talk a whole lot. But through communication with my team when I’m in a game, that’s improved immensely.”
Not only has esports helped with Lawson’s communication skills; it has also allowed him to become a better, more relatable team player in the grand scheme of life. “It has helped me learn how to express how I feel,” he says, “but I also now understand how to find middle ground with others.” Both Lawson and Hanson are hopeful that their time at Columbia College will ultimately lead to careers in the esports field, citing opportunities in playing in professional or amateur leagues, as well as coaching.
Missouri: The Hub of Esports
In the world of collegiate esports, Columbia College has made a name for itself. The team scored the top spot in ESPN’s recent “League of Legends” rankings and placed runner-up in the 2018 College “League of Legends” Championship in Los Angeles.
Columbia College’s current esports ties can be traced back to Dalrymple’s 2014 inauguration ceremony. “Inaugurations are generally pretty formal affairs, and in my experience, I don’t think students are that interested in them. I never was,” he says. “So, I was talking to my sons, and I said to them, ‘We’re doing this inauguration. What do you think we could do to get students excited and get them involved?’ My oldest son said, ‘Play video games!’ He meant it as a joke, but we actually started to think about it and thought, ‘Well, maybe we could play video games.’”
This idea led to the creation of a video game tournament in which Dalrymple competed against one student in a game of Madden NFL, was defeated and, subsequently, was responsible for footing the bill for a one-year supply of textbooks and pizza.
“That day was really cool,” Dalrymple says. “The tournament was great. [After] seeing the energy from the students throughout the day, I thought, ‘How can we bottle this? How can we keep this going somehow?’”
Curiosity officially set in, sending Dr. Dalrymple on an esports research quest. “I started to realize that there were a handful of colleges doing something in esports more formally,” he says. “So, I asked a group of folks who know more than I do to look into it, and they did. Then, we decided to form a “League of Legends” team, and the rest is history.”
“It is a great honor to be at the forefront of such an innovative institution,” Pham says. “Columbia College is extremely student-centric and was able to identify this trend early. We were bold and innovative enough to be one of the few first pioneers to embrace esports.”
As one of the first few universities to blaze the collegiate esports trail, Columbia College has set an example for Missouri and the Midwest. “I don’t think we deserve inordinate credit,” Dalrymple says, “but like some other schools, we saw it early, and we invested. But now, it’s getting mainstream. It’s going to be everywhere.”
Case in point: Mizzou’s esports program launching in the fall. This decision will make MU one of the largest universities to adopt such a program and the first school in the Southeastern Conference to do so.
“Building a brand-new program is exciting because we are looking at a blank canvas,” Reape says. “We are currently anticipating [having] 25 varsity players for Mizzou esports, with teams for both “Overwatch” and “League of Legends.” The team will practice and compete in more than 5,000 square feet of dedicated space in Center Hall, making it one of the largest university gaming facilities in the nation. We are also talking to some of the best players across the country right now and are looking to make some exciting signing announcements very soon.”
Reape is thankful for other local teams that have helped take esports to the next level. “Missouri really is the hub of esports,” he says. “It is home to some of the greatest teams in the world. Programs like Columbia College and Maryville have been extremely receptive and willing to assist as we have gotten started. These schools have set the bar for what a winning program looks like on a national level. I am excited to see what the University of Missouri is capable of accomplishing in the esports realm.”
Midwest Campus Clash and Gaming Expo
Similar to Columbia College’s esports beginnings, the idea of a gaming convention stemmed from a Dalrymple idea. “I was thinking, ‘This team thing is pretty cool, but nobody really watches them play. Let’s make this into a social event.’ ”
From there, the esports tournament and expo event, Midwest Campus Clash and Gaming Expo, was born. The major headliner of this event is a fiercely competitive “League of Legends” tournament comprising eight collegiate esports teams. Screaming crowds and announcers surround a stage where players from several schools compete to take home portions of the tournament’s $25,000 grand prize pool, a hefty sum that will go toward the winning school’s future scholarship and equipment budgets.
Columbia College pulls out all the stops for this event, completely transforming its basketball arena and embellishing it with vibrant lights and displays, a variety of vendors, virtual reality experiences, food trucks and, of course, an abundance of hands-on games. This year will include “Fortnite,” an oversized “Galaga” and a section dedicated to classic arcade games, encouraging participation from all age groups in attendance. With last year’s event drawing more than 2,000 people, expectations for the third annual event in April are high.
“As far as we know, this is the biggest gaming event in the Midwest,” Dalrymple says.
The home esports team has some expectations of its own for the event’s major tournament.
“We haven’t won the past two years,” Hanson says, “but I think we have a good enough roster this year to win it all.”
“Columbia College is extremely student-centric and was able to identify this trend early. We were bold and innovative enough to be one of the few first pioneers to embrace esports.”
Duong Pham, Columbia College’s founding esports head coach
Despite the losses of years past, Hanson is grateful for the opportunity the event provides. It has validated his decision to stay home and use his talents to represent Columbia College. “The amount of work that our school puts in to make this event happen just shows their level of dedication to making our team feel good about being here,” he says.
Although Mizzou’s esports team will not be in play by April, Reape will be in attendance. “I have been to the Midwest Campus Clash every year, and I look forward to having a team there competing in 2020,” he says. “The event is run at the highest level and brings thousands of people from Columbia together who simply love gaming and esports. I have no doubt that Mizzou will host a similar event in the near future.”
Dalrymple ends by issuing a final event invitation. “Let’s say you’re the least interested person in gaming on the planet,” he says. “You should still come to this event because it’s just a cool spectacle. When people have gone to the Midwest Campus Clash, they start to get it. They say, ‘OK, we understand what this is all about. We can see the enthusiasm of all of these students.’ They’re in a safe environment, and they’re doing neat things. There’s just very little not to like.”