Features

Esports Has Arrived

Area schools and businesses get in on competitive gaming
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Students try out for the esports teams at Western Michigan University. Photo courtesy of WMU.

When he was a kid, before he was a student at Kalamazoo Central High School, Karlo Delos Angeles, now a 26-year-old graduate student at Western Michigan University, was given a Nintendo gaming system and an infamous game called Super Mario Bros.

"I started from the classics, and I've been playing ever since," he says, taking a break from overseeing tryouts in January for Western Michigan University's competitive gaming club teams. Delos Angeles now is a team manager for three of WMU’s esports club teams as the university jumps ahead of its peers in establishing and funding an esports program.

Esports, also known as competitive gaming, is a booming business within the broader gaming industry that is building a lucrative fan base around the world. Market industry research firm Newzoo says video games and devices on which to play them were a $135 billion industry in 2018 — up 11 percent from the previous year.

Read also: E-what? Understanding the emerging world of esports

That growth is obvious here in Southwest Michigan — high schools and college students are finding more teams to play on and places to play as local businesses capitalize on the interest in esports. Area high schools, including Vicksburg, Hackett, Gull Lake, Loy Norrix and Kalamazoo Central, all have club teams that compete with teams across the U.S. through the national High School Esports League.

Cross-generational appeal

Esports has wide appeal. One needn't be a specific age or experience level to play, and game interests range from extremely competitive to leisurely, local enthusiasts say. This broad appeal promotes an inclusiveness that underscores the generationally driven growth of gaming, with one big exception: the significantly small number of female gamers.

As expected, the younger crowd, those under 21, is one of the largest demographics within the global gaming market, although those over 21 are a target audience too: Last November the aptly named LFG Gaming Bar (LFG is short for Liquor, Food, Gaming) opened in downtown Kalamazoo, offering dozens of old-school arcade games and more modern console games for its drinking-age patrons to play.

The establishment, at 116 Portage St., hosts weekly tournaments involving games such as Super Smash Bros., Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Project M and Melee. Its "Thursday Fight Night" has fighting game tournaments involving such games as Street Fighter V, Tekken 7, Dragon Ball FighterZ and Soul Caliber VI.

"There are pretty close groups that come in and play video games, almost like a club," says LFG owner Amy Spalsbury.

LFG was preceded on the gaming scene by Glitch Gaming, which opened at 300 E. Centre Ave. in Portage two years ago. Glitch has focused on a larger segment of the gaming market by hosting more frequent tournaments, which almost solely involve single or team-fighting games. Glitch has carved out a niche within the gaming community by offering a "communal approach," says Danni Washington, 27, Glitch manager.

Its main gaming gallery holds dozens of consoles and computers positioned in circles, and appears to be equally as inviting for hanging out with friends as it is for introducing newbies to gaming.

"Quite a few people will come in large groups but will play on their own game," says Washington. "Our sweet spot is social gaming and kids’ parties," though area high schools have held esports team tryouts and practices at Glitch.

And, once a month, Glitch still hosts a tournament for the game Super Smash Bros. In January, 62 people competed for a small cash prize and bragging rights.

Washington says Glitch’s demographic skews 90-95 percent male and ages 11 to 25, the prime age range for best hand-eye reflexes, which ultimately means the better players have a limited time to become professional.

Washington says she hasn't heard of anyone local making it to the professional level of playing, but as the number of gamers increases and their skills improve, the chance of that happening becomes more likely. Competitive gamers play wherever the internet service is good enough, from home to gaming lounges, making it not only an ultra-accessible pastime, but easy for players with standout statistics to be tracked. Players can be scouted just as a prospect would be in traditional sports, and, with dedicated YouTube channels and the gaming-specific network called Twitch, that can amplify their renown.

"This is all super new," Washington says. "A local scene is developing, but it's in the infancy stage."

LFG’s Spalsbury agrees, saying the local competitive gaming scene is evolving because video gaming has been a fact of life for younger generations, from college students to Millennials to Gen Xers.

“It (gaming) does play a big part in our society nowadays," she says. "People are realizing you could make gaming into a career or go into a field where you may eventually develop a video game. People are taking those careers a lot more seriously. Almost everybody has played a video game at some point, even if it is just the old Dance Dance Revolution."

The local scene took a major step forward in October when WMU announced a $500,000 plan to refurbish the campus’s Little Theatre, the former host of plays and Kalamazoo Film Society movies, into a leading esports facility in the Midwest and one of only a handful in the country. It's part of WMU's agenda to recruit more students — in this case by offering an opportunity unique in academia to student esports players.

The 77-year-old building on Oakland Drive hosts nearly 200 people in its seated auditorium and dozens more on its stage, where players compete on state-of-the-art competition-style consoles.

Spectator sport

Esports doesn’t just attract players, though: Audiences for competitive gaming are growing. Tickets to the 2018 International for Dota 2, a six-day tournament held in Vancouver, British Columbia’s Rogers Arena, which seats more than 19,800, sold out in minutes. November’s BlizzCon, the annual convention and esports competition involving the games Warcraft, StarCraft, Diablo, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm and Overwatch, attracted nearly 40,000 attendees to Anaheim, California.

And as audiences grow, so do their expectations that they will be regarded like other sports fans. "As esports’ popularity increases, bigger, better and more venues will be necessary to cater to attendees," Newzoo wrote in its trend report on the industry this year.

WMU’s arena is set up to attract those audiences, albeit on a smaller scale. Giant screens above the stage can show a player's view of the game or simulcast the live play-by-play action that has been a growing part of esports' global competition. It's exactly how you are imagining it: Just as announcers narrate action on a traditional playing field, “esports-casters" provide verbal commentary to give audiences halfway around the world more excitement and insight into the game playing than what they can see from just the digital characters being navigated through levels of the game.

But the Broncos' esports program is about more than playing and spectating, says Tavian Napier, WMU's esports coordinator. WMU’s program is leveraged to make sure students learn “the intricacies of what it takes to put on a large event, not just to pump out good players,” he says. (Find out what an esports coordinator does in Back Story, page 46.)

Putting on a large esports event includes the commercial aspect, such as securing corporate sponsorships, as well as technical engineering to ensure all players and spectators can see and hear what they are supposed to. Good lighting, for example, creates the right colorful ambience, and live commentary must be honed to professional standards.

"There are not many college arenas. Most schools just have a computer lab," Napier says. "We're separating ourselves from pretty much any other college doing esports right now."

He says teams from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University have come to play in tournaments at WMU’s arena, and Napier has begun outreach to businesses about hosting team-building events at the facility. He also gives tours of the arena to schools looking to create an esports program or arena. Napier also sees opportunities to hold summer camps for area high school students at WMU’s arena.

In early January, as club team tryouts were taking place and about a month later, on Feb. 17, teams from the University of North Texas and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign played two tournaments against Delos Angeles' teams.

"Michigan is an underdog in competitive gaming … but we will start to see more effort being put in," Napier says. "Kalamazoo will help pave that way when they see how seriously we are taking this."

Lessons of gaming

There are practical lessons in all of this, lessons common to collegiate-level sports: working with a team, communicating deliberately and effectively, and setting and achieving goals.

Napier, Delos Angeles and other Bronco esports club officials who were in the technical booth overseeing the winter session tryouts, all say esports is a better conduit for those lessons than traditional sports, if only because more people can play esports.

"If someone plays football, you see them as a physical specimen," Napier says, noting that esports requires brain muscle and the ability to teach eyes, ears and hands to be equally as responsive. "This is like chess on steroids."

Inclusivity is part of WMU President Edward Montgomery’s mandate for the university, and Napier says it’s also integral to his mission as he coordinates the components that make up esports on campus.

During club tryouts, there was indeed a rainbow of participants representing diverse racial and ethnic groups among the more than two dozen who were trying out. However, only two women were playing. Napier says he is working with the few female gamers who came to the tryouts to understand and implement better ways to attract more of them.

"The main thing is skill and the ability to work with your team," he says of esports in general. "It doesn't matter your gender, background or age."

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The ubiquity of video games

“It (gaming) does play a big part in our society nowadays. People are realizing you could make gaming into a career or go into a field where you may eventually develop a video game. People are taking those careers a lot more seriously. Almost everybody has played a video game at some point, even if it is just the old Dance Dance Revolution."

–Danni Washington, Manager, Glitch Gaming Lounge