The esports program: a community of competition.
Spring, 2019. In a large classroom in Landrum. Just under 20 students gathered around 10 laptops to play, and watch other students play, League of Legends. Some of the students had played the game before, some had just started playing that day, in that room. There was a buzz of excitement as two makeshift teams of 5 loaded in to play each other. As both teams were a mix of veterans and rookies, the skill disparity between players was readily apparent, but this didn’t bother them. They were there to play, to have a good time, and that’s exactly what they did.
This was the Southern Virginia University esports club. Just a few guys in a classroom that met together two or three times a week. They were small, but they had a big dream. That dream included a facility of their own, intercollegiate competition, and, most importantly, a community that could come together and support each other in all of this. Many would have called it a pipe dream, even some of the members of the club were skeptical, but Michael Daniels was determined to see the dream succeed.
Every group has a leader. In some groups, it’s just whoever is the best at organizing, in others, it’s whoever is the most passionate about the purpose of the group. Daniels was the latter. He initially attended Southern Virginia in 2015, where he talked to everyone about his interest in the business side of esports. The timing wasn’t right then, but when he returned to the University in the spring of 2018 things started to line up. He was introduced to Art Furler, director of operations, who wanted to start an esports program on campus, and the two of them worked in private for six months before launching the program in the fall that same year.
Jonathan Detro, who goes by Jon, joined the esports program that same fall. A senior now, Jon remembers the first time he heard about the program. “I honestly didn’t even know what esports was. My friend was talking about it, he sounded pretty enthusiastic, and another one of my friends invited me to go check out the program with him. That’s how I got started.”
Tyson Toller, another student who joined that fall, actually found the program by accident. “I was hanging out with some friends in Landrum, and I left my hoodie in the classroom. When I went back to get it, I found Mike and he asked me if I was there for esports. I just answered ‘Sure!’ And that was how we started.”
That was it. A few clueless students, a passionate leader, and some support from staff. To the students, it seemed but wishful thinking that their club had a future. Today the esports program has over 60 enrolled students, a facility, a coach, and five different games to compete in. Daniels, now officially the program director of the esports program, sits at his desk. His eyes glint in excitement as he checks the time. He has a call with a prospective student in less than an hour. The program is on track to have nearly 100 students enrolled for the fall semester. It was a miraculous series of events, something Daniels readily admits, but it may also have been inevitable.
Gather, Lift, Launch, is the University mission. These three words are the driving force in decisions the school makes. These three words are also the driving force behind the success of the esports project. Some 70% of college students play video games, so it seems obvious now that the University was gathering students that were passionate about video games. Daniels gave these students a program to rally around.
The community that formed was more than capable of lifting its members. Steven Atkins, a freshman who came to Southern Virginia for the esports program last fall, was worried he might not fit in very well. At just 16 years old, he was by far the youngest person in the program. His worries were unfounded, and he would quickly come to call the program a family. His teammates helped him with homework and other problems. Even though he was much younger than the others, they treated him as an equal, something Steven found humbling.
Perhaps most surprising, however, was the dynamic between Daniels and the rest of the program. “Mike is so humble.” Steven observed. “Technically he’s above us, but he doesn’t think like that. It’s cool to see him interact with the players as equals. I think that’s why it feels so much like a family.”
Any community that can lift, will inevitably serve as a launching pad. For Daniels, this has been the goal since the beginning. He knows that “there are certain things that people develop over the course of their lives by being a part of a community or a team.”
Some of the players would never have been on a team if not for the esports program. By providing that opportunity, Daniels believes the program can open doors for students, and give them opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have. So far, the program has been very successful in doing just that.
Jon, who had no clue what esports even was when he joined the program, has now decided to pursue a career in esports after graduation. He is thankful for the esports program because it showed him what he wanted to do for a living. Tyson, who found the program by accident, found new friends and gained the experience necessary to apply for internships he was unqualified for previously. These are just some of the experiences that prove, as Daniels likes to say, “the esports program has a lot of ‘launching’ potential.”
The esports room is getting loud, it’s almost time for practice. Some of the players are veterans, some of them just started playing within the last two months. Like in the beginning, skill levels between the players are wildly different. Still, that doesn’t deter the players from competing. Daniels’ invitation sums up the attitude of the program well: “If you’re passionate about learning, if you’re passionate about competing, then we’ll teach you the game. Just come out here and we’ll help you learn and grow, and develop friendships along the way.”