This piece was originally to be published in the now-defunct VICE Sports, and as such is a bit delayed in its timing. Future work along these lines will cover Overwatch, fighting game competition, and more. Thanks to VICE, particularly Mike Piellucci, for the initial opportunity.
Head over to patreon.com/hegelbon now where, for subscribers of 5 dollars or more, I’ve posted the transcripts from my interviews with Pursel and Ganzman. There will also be an audio version of this article available for patrons, and if you’d rather donate via paypal, please message me or send at paypal.me/hegelbon . Thanks for your support!
The American university is a uniquely predictable place. Despite its transformation into a for-profit enterprise over the past few decades, and even despite its reputation as a transformative personal experience for incoming students, college for all intents and purposes runs the same path it has for at least the last hundred years: personal growth through a mixture of education and extracurricular activities. For the most part, the division between these two facets of university life are pretty clear, and the subdivisions between those divisions fall on predictable lines too, such that college life is broken up between class, study time, clubs, sports, parties, et al. Technological advancements and hookups notwithstanding, if you describe your college experience in 2016 to your parents, they’ll have a way to contextualize most of it thanks to these handy buckets. And that’s what makes eSports so strange.
The rise of competitive gaming or eSports on college campuses has been fascinating to watch in part because the phenomenon does not neatly fit into any of the buckets mentioned above. Competitive gaming is not quite a sport in the sense we’re used to at the college level, but it’s too close to active and organized competition to simply be a club activity. Add to this milieu that the character of competitive gaming groups changes campus-by-campus, and it becomes even more difficult to pin down how exactly eSports fit into the college landscape. Gaming companies have been trying to carve a space for them through larger organizational efforts, including Riot Games’ University League of Legends, or ULOL, and Blizzard Entertainment’s Tespa. But just as in the world of competitive gaming at large, organizing gaming under a consistent rubric is easier said than done, and the anarchic quality of eSports generally is felt at the college level as well.
Bart Pursel, the adviser of Penn State University’s eSports Club, describes eSports on campus as a kind of shifting signifier, not quite a sport in the traditional sense and not quite a purely social scene. He notes that the club itself, particularly the League of Legends (LoL) division is interested in becoming more codified in its competition, saying that in the future, the team would look more like a “club team” and would “travel to other campuses to compete, or compete online through the ‘official’ college tournaments and leagues for LoL.” Pursel adds that “[PSU’s] athletic department also has some interest in seeing something like a Big 10 LoL division and championship created at some point in time” but is careful to note that both the university and the club itself are “a long way from that.”
Thinking even further ahead, Pursel predicts that “Ten years from now, eSports will probably fill a variety of roles on a campus, from social and relaxing to high-stakes tournaments, where players might even be receiving some level of scholarship funding to participate on a team that competes within athletic conferences.” Pursel’s comments speak to the challenge eSports poses to traditional college sports architecture. If the future of the PSU eSports club is one that that marries the informal heart of the club with a competitive, athletic arm, then it would be different than almost any sport in college at this point. Too closely aligned to be likened to the intramural/school team division we see in traditional college sports, Pursel’s vision of a mix of relaxation and “high-stakes” tournaments pushes the pressure-points of the NCAA’s “amateurism” defense of unpaid student athletes (ably detailed by Patrick Hruby and others) to its limit. ESports, with their nebulous boundaries between professionals and amateurs in other words, might be dangerous or destabilizing for college sports as we know them.
And in fact, at Robert Morris University, where Pursel’s vision is closer to a reality, the borders between adviser and coach are not just blurred but removed entirely. The RMU Eagles, who for our purposes might be the Alabama Crimson Tide of the eSports world, are in many ways the reverse mirror image of the PSU eSports Club, in which professionalization and high stakes competition are the rule as opposed to the exception. Ferris Ganzman, the head coach of the Eagles’ League of Legends Varsity squad, takes this strange contra-NCAA model of eSports as a matter of course, explaining that at RMU, “The past few years for sure I think we’ve developed [the program] into being a professional environment similar to professional teams, but the very interesting thing is that — unlike professional [eSports] teams who do development, but [who very rarely] sign an amateur player without having worked with that player extensively over a period of time and then just incorporate them into your team — we take in players as well and kind of develop them here both as individuals and as part of a team.”
Ganzman, who has professional experience with Orbit Gaming and Cloud9, recognizes the benefit of having one’s development be part and parcel with one’s competitive team. While RMU gives out scholarships for League players, it is also able to develop non-elite talent without the restrictions of roster space, NCAA guidelines, or national scrutiny of roster moves. As Ganzman explains, “Not all players here are looking for that kind of professional level schedule, [that] work that’s required to play at [a professional] level. So we have a mix of coaches and various systems that we use with our players to tailor to what their goal is.”
In other words, Ganzman’s role as coach is not quite Nick Saban and not quite Bart Pursel: he lives somewhere in between, grooming elite recruits to win college championships while mentoring kids who don’t have any real intention of serious competition and just want to experience the club itself. This has become easier, he tells me, thanks to additions of assistant coaches to his staff, but the complexity of the situation still strikes me as unique in college athletics generally. Ganzman agrees for the most part, telling me that:
So like, for our program we’re trying to be competitive always, at least with one of our teams. We want one team to represent the school at the major collegiate competition. So we do go out and actively recruit those type of players, whose goal really is, they want to make the professional scene, right? But the professional scene takes a lot of time outside [the collegiate system] … And the amount of people who make the professionals here are a very, very, very small percentage [of the whole], so by doing that [without college] they put all their eggs in one basket. Whereas starting at our program or any other collegiate program being set up, they can work toward a new career, have that safety net, and get the college experience in general which has a lot of benefits, like there are [sic] a lot of stuff that happens outside the game that wouldn’t happen in a typical amateur team environment.
So the eSports community — and the League team as well — at RMU takes its character cues in part from the nature of the professional scene itself, which is far less regulated than any of the major professional sports generally. College for MLB, the NFL, or the NBA is a method of gatekeeping, a step in a process that enforces reduced rookie wages as well as systematic league parity by way of a draft that gives losing teams a chance to rebuild with premier players. In eSports, the contract is king, and so in the free market free-for-all, players are only limited by their luck and their ambition. For some players, the appeal of a college system like RMU is going to be its ability to serve as a kind of guild-based apprenticeship, an opportunity to test the waters of competition and build a safety net before jumping out into risky waters. And as a part of that apprenticeship, the club nurtures all levels of competitor, from elite prospect to the student who, as Ganzman says, just wants “to be part of this experience.”
But what then do we make of a club like Pursel’s, which is almost strictly for kids who “want to be part of this experience” but which also has ambitions for a larger role in intra-university competition? On one hand, we can see Pursel’s group as an alternative structure for eSports organization at the college level, one which corresponds more closely to the more recognizable NCAA structure than the privatized, corporate organization Ganzman laid out. That said, it seems to me that competitive gaming and eSports, even in Pursel’s figuration, represent a shift in the nature of college sports that cannot be contained by NCAA-style organization. The corporate quality of the sport itself, the international quality of competition, and the rejection of regional-style compartmentalization all suggest that the more traditional vision of sports — city-or-state-or-university-based teams competing for regional glory — might have less sway here than we might expect. Indeed, eSports organization might end up looking more like NASCAR or professional cycling — teams of individuals united around a brand.
And while this vision might seem more contemporary than the Big Ten and the SEC, it would have no real precedent in the deeply predictable sphere of the American university. ESports at the collegiate level, in other words, is the rare new beast for university and postgraduate education. This means challenges for advisers and coaches, who are now not quite coaches, not quite agents, and not quite educational facilitators. We can see this as a dangerous or problematic issue — what does it mean that such a commercialized activity is making its way into colleges, ostensibly not a commercial space — but I think this is probably not the most forward-thinking perspective. ESports do have a corporate aspect, yes, but the for-profit university of the contemporary moment is hardly the Grand Old Campus we know from our national imagination. Ultimately, what Pursel and Ganzman both suggest despite the differences in their clubs, is that eSports and competitive gaming can mean a new direction for athletes in the university, a new conception beyond the horizon of amateurism and the NCAA. As we have seen over the past decade of development in on- and off-the-field organizing in the University, such a challenge is needed and should be followed with the utmost interest.