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eSports Surging in Popularity

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Lee (left) with Ana, a support hero who uses biotic rifles, and Prahandika with Zarya, a tank who turns barriers into energy. (UC Berkeley photos by Ken Li)

The world of electronic sports (esports) has grown far beyond the group of friends gaming in their dorm rooms.

At UC Berkeley, six teammates — Daniel “Alined” Lee, Kevin “SlurpeeThief” Royston, Gandira “Syeikh” Prahandika, Alexander “PaiGwut” Dam, Andrew “Quantum” Huang, and Isaias “izzyyyb” Barrera — make up Cal’s Overwatch League (OWL). The team won the Fiesta Bowl Overwatch Collegiate National Championship, taking home $120,000 in scholarship money.

Cal’s team is largely Asian and Asian American. Lee is from South Korea, Prahandika is from Indonesia, and Tiffany Tsay, coordinator of Cal Overwatch team who is also dating Lee, is Asian American.

 

Overwatch is a multiplayer first-person shooter game where teams of six “heroes” carry out missions through online battlefields known as “maps.” Overwatch’s official website describes the game this way: “In a time of global crisis, an international task force of heroes banded together to restore peace to a war-torn world.”Launched in 2016 by Blizzard Entertainment — known for its other games including World of Warcraft®, Hearthstone®, StarCraft®, and Heroes of the Storm® — Overwatch boasts over 35 million registered online players.

The Fiesta Bowl Overwatch Collegiate National Championship was held on Saturday, February 17, at Arizona State University. Hosted by Blizzard Entertainment, Tespa, and the Fiesta Bowl, it is the first esports event brought to life by a college football bowl organization and game publisher.

“With the explosive growth of esports, we identified this opportunity to broaden our footprint and get involved right at our sweet spot – intercollegiate competition. Partnering with Blizzard Entertainment once again puts us at the top of the college game, in a slightly different arena,” said Mike Nealy, Fiesta Bowl Executive Director, reports Fiesta Bowl. “Now is a perfect time to become a part of a new frontier for college gaming. These are highly-talented and dedicated students showcasing their skills.”

The gamers played live for a sold-out stadium of 1,000 fans as well as millions of viewers who streamed the tournament on Twitch, the world’s leading livestream platform for gaming.

To get here, the four finalist teams — defending champions, University of California, Berkeley; University of Toronto; University of California, Irvine; and University of California, San Diego — competed against 318 schools in a season-long collegiate competition. These teams are composed of highly competitive players. For example, Kevin “SlurpeeThief” Royston of Cal Overwatch is ranked in the top 1% of players nationwide. 

To prepare for Nationals, the Cal players practiced six hours a week as a team and up to four hours a day individually. The 19 to 21 year olds balanced the pressures of intensive training with the coursework for their majors in economics, cognitive science, computer science, civil engineering, and political science.

Their hard work paid off. Cal Overwatch won by defeating last year’s runner-up, University of Toronto, in the semifinals with a 3-1 win, before taking the championships with a 3-0 sweep against UC Irvine.

“I was just happy, because if we lost, my girlfriend would have cried. But we won, and my girlfriend still cried,” Daniel “Alined” Lee, captain of Cal Overwatch, told AZ Central.

Competitive gaming is becoming a fixture in the realm of college sports. eSports@Berkeley is now an official part of Cal’s Recreational Sports program, with nine competitive teams including Overwatch, League of Legends, Hearthstone, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Heroes of the Storm.

The Big Leagues

Big name investors have taken an interest in esports due to its impact on the entertainment industry. Esports provides a door into the lives of Millennials and teens. Millennials are watching less television and more online content, compelling those who have invested in cable-based traditional sports in the past to shift their spending toward esports. Online game streaming platforms such as Twitch have signed contracts with the NFL. Traditional sports teams have also began investing, such as Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, who purchased an Overwatch League (OWL) spot for $20 million, and the Houston Rockets, who hired Sebastian Park to be Director of eSports Development.

Esports as an Olympic Game

In October 2017, the IOC declared that “esports are indeed… sports,” reports The Inquirer.

In midst of the Olympic Games, Intel Corp, an Olympics sponsor, recently hosted an esports tournament in a wedding hall in Gangneung. The players, clad in shirts displaying Olympic rings, battled each other through the virtual war game, StarCraft II, for a prize of $150,000, reports Reuters.

“eSports are showing strong growth, especially within the youth demographic across different countries, and can provide a platform for engagement with the Olympic Movement,” the Olympic Summit explained in a statement. A similar verdict was made several months prior when the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) announced that esports will be added to the official sports line-up of the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. The Asian Games hosts thousands of Pancontinental Asian athletes and is the world’s second largest multi-sport event after the Olympics. As the Asian Games are recognized by the International Olympics Committee (IOC), a positive response to esports in China 2022 may land esports a spot in the official Olympic Games. 

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