Esports sweeping world — and Indiana, too


When Henry Johnston was planted on his butt indoors after a high school day, his fingers fluttering like a hummingbird on a gaming console, his parents wondered if he was wasting his life.

Just go do something outdoors, they thought, inhale the sunshine and blue sky.

Johnston played on with the singular purpose and practice it takes to excel at anything.

"I’ve gotten pretty good," Johnston said of his status in Esports competitive gaming. "I’m better than average, in the top 1%."

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Meaning on any given day, he could defeat or lose to a player in the top 0.7 percentile at Grand Champion, a specialty, and be ranked between the 1,000th and 2,000th best player. But if he expected to grab a fistful of gold in the Esports universe, he would have to be ranked in the 0.2 percentile.

Luke Renchik, 21, dabbled in football, tennis and other traditional sports into his teens. More recently, he was playing tight defense on an opponent in a pickup basketball game. The guy asked what sport he really played.

Renchik said he was an Esports player. Astonished, the opponent retorted, "That’s not real."

Some scoff that Esports players are not athletes. Some say Esports isn’t even sports. Those are off-the-cuff reactions from people over 30 in essentially a parallel universe with the younger generation.

Esports are so new, there is not even common ground on what gaming should be called: Esports, esports, eSports, e-sports or electronic sports. Wikipedia uses Esports. ESPN The Magazine, before its death, used eSports. The Associated Press likes esports.

Adults in the room with gray in their hair are clueless. They may think they know about basketball and football players, yet are totally unaware of gamers such as Johnston and Renchik, captains of two Butler University Esports club teams.

Esports are a fast-rising global phenomenon with millions of players who compete for high stakes and can provide scholarships at some American colleges.

Butler began gaming in 2017. Johnston was a co-founder. Franklin College recently announced plans to start Esports in 2021. Purdue University Northwest in Hammond has committed to Esports beginning this fall. At Indiana University in Bloomington, there is club competition.

There is a governing body of college Esports, and it isn’t the NCAA. Esports events can be viewed through streaming (of course) and on television.

Discussions were initiated in 2017 about Esports becoming part of the Olympic Games. Esports are a bigger deal in South Korea and China than the NFL is in the United States.

Newzoo, a company specializing in gaming research, estimated there were 165 million participants worldwide by 2018 and there will be 250 million by 2021 with a projected revenue of $1.65 billion.

To Johnston’s way of thinking, the go-outside-and-do-something urging from parents Kathleen and Richard Sarnowski carried a cultural overtone, that walk-in-the-woods other such activities were more valuable than playing on a computer screen.

"It’s a combination of a societal and a generational thing," Johnston said.

The world goes crazy

Until about 2010, video games were viewed as a high-tech toys.

Young people were given PlayStation as a Christmas gift. Pac-Man and Donkey Kong were games that seemed like fads the way Beanie Babies were. Only now, looking back, they can be viewed as forerunners.

The first known video game tournament took place in October 1972 at Stanford University. It was described as the "intergalactic spacewar Olympics" with first prize being a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. That seems rather quaint now.

A decade later, between 1982 and 1984, "Starcade" was a 133-episode television show.

Fast forward, at Rocket League speed, and such games as Street Fighter and Call of Duty came on the scene, ramping up overall popularity. Periodically, a major publication wrote something about this sensation. Often, it was criticized as violent and sexist.

Starting in 2000, newly sophisticated technology, much stemming from South Korea, gave gaming another lift. Competition, once judged simply by posting high scores, morphed into head-to-head competition, one-on-one between combatants and showdowns of teams going five-on-five.

More recently, gaming expansion mushroomed more through streaming, through Twitch, than through the mainstream.

Mostly since 2015, gaming began inching toward becoming a billion-dollar industry oldsters had never even heard about.

Much was explained a couple of years ago by Ryan Fairchild, an attorney from Wilmington, North Carolina, who represents Esports figures in negotiations.

"The average MLB (Major League Baseball) fan is around 55 years old and quickly aging," Fairchild said. "The average NFL and NHL fans aren’t far behind and also rapidly aging. Soccer and the NBA have some of the youngest average fan ages, sitting at around 40 years old and are a bit more stable. The average Esports fan is at least 10 years younger than that.

"Moreover, 18- to 25-year-old males are watching more Esports than all of traditional sports combined. Marketers refer to the Esports viewer demographic — young, educated males — as the Holy Grail of marketing."

Gamers ranked in the highest echelons can win major-league paydays in the toughest tournaments. The five-man team competing at Dota 2 in The International 2019 split $34,330,000.

The first individual superstar of gaming, Lee Sang-hyeok, aka Faker, emerged in South Korea, a shy and frail teenager with lightning reflexes and a killer instinct who was part of three League of Legends world title teams in 2013, 2015 and 2016 and won three Most Valuable Player awards. At 5-foot-8 and 119 pounds, Faker seemed at risk from his own fans, in danger of being broken like a twig if they got too close.

About the Faker thing … numerous highly touted gamers have flashy nicknames such as "Seagull," "Ambition," "MaDFroG" and "Karma," kind of like professional wrestlers.

Faker represented his country in the Asian Games in 2016, which was viewed as a test run for acceptance into the Olympics and was treated like a rocked star, mobbed whenever he moved in public. He was always at risk of being surrounded by groupies. When he collected gifts of chocolate and stuffed animals, it was a scene resembling figure skating.

So adored was Faker and so good at what he did, fans shouted, "Faker is God!"

"I think of him on the same level as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods," said Jeon Yong Jun, a broadcaster quoted in ESPN The Magazine, "people who brought their respective industries to the next level."

Besides possessing natural hand-eye coordination, fast hands and stamina to practice Esports seemingly for endless hours, (hopefully without drugs, perceived as a problem) the top practitioners do not actually dash around proclaiming they are better athletes than Jordan or Woods.

Except for Yauheni Hladki, someone immersed in running Esports leagues around the world, who in a 2018 San Francisco speech declared the discovery "that all the Esports far surpass traditional sports in terms of skill."

This was a head-scratcher since Esports players do not run sprints or marathons, dunk or use brute strength to move foes out of their paths. Some felt Hladki was simply being intentionally outrageous without offering proof to support his overarching skill declaration.

Esports have grown at supersonic speed in numbers. There also was a growth interruption horror story along the way.

In August 2018, a player who specialized in the Madden game (as in football coach John Madden) named David Katz went berserk at a Jacksonville, Florida, tournament.

Katz, who was mentally ill, lost a contest, refused to congratulate the winner and then left the Jacksonville Landing site before returning while brandishing two handguns. He shot to death two people, wounded 10 others and then committed suicide.

Until then, little attention was paid to tournament security. After that, it was increased, almost a statement, however macabre, Esports was big time.

Meanwhile, back at the Olympics. Under the Olympic Charter adhered to by the International Olympic Committee, to be added to a Games calendar, a men’s sport must be contested by 75 countries on four continents and a women’s sport in 40 countries on three continents.

In recent years, the IOC has focused on adding sports that appeal to young people so it can regenerate with young blood. That’s how skateboarding became an Olympic sport.

After the 2017 bat-it-around meeting, IOC President Thomas Bach said two things were obstacles to Esports becoming acceptable to the Olympics, one being the lack of an international governing body. The other was the violent nature of many games. Things blow up and characters get smashed to smithereens.

"If you have egames where it’s about killing somebody, his cannot be brought into line with our Olympic values," Bach said.

Indiana wants you

Tracking the explosion of interest in Esports universally is a swift movement to embrace them in colleges around the country and in Indiana.

There is a supervising authority called NACE, the National Association of Collegiate Esports, but the NCAA, the governing body of athletic teams, isn’t likely to expand its administrative duties.

"We know a lot of the content is hugely misogynistic," NCAA President Mark Emmert said last year. "We know that some of the content is really violent. We don’t particularly embrace games where the objective is to blow your opponent’s head off."

Still, as of last year, there were 175 varsity members of NACE. Hundreds more schools are tiptoeing into the waters with club teams. According to NACE, some $9 million in scholarships are being awarded.

Indiana University has six club Esports teams. In February, Purdue Northwest announced a plan to add Esports as the school’s 14th varsity athletic program, certainly blurring any distancing from other sports.

However, the school linked the startup to academic programs in science, technology and math. Purdue Northwest is planning to award scholarship money to players.

Franklin College is looking to fall 2020 to begin competition with as many as 24 players in the first season and is in the market for a coach. Franklin is excited to become part of the E-world.

"It’s huge. It’s right after the Super Bowl (in interest)," said Larry Stoffel, chief information officer and director of information technology services for the school.

Stoffel said 300 students were surveyed, and 100 expressed interest. Those not involved with other teams see Esports "as something they can be pretty good at. It has sports in the title because it’s a competition."

Unlike players under NCAA rule, Franklin’s Esports competitors can make money from gaming during Christmas break or over the summer.

Franklin needs $50,000 to $100,000 to invest in a "high-end gaming system," Stoffel said.

"We’re seeking donors. We want to stream our games and sell ads," he said.

Butler’s bulldog spreads its bark

The school mascot shows up in the flesh for basketball games at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The bulldog face promoting Esports is prominent on a shield, caps, sweatshirts and other merchandise Butler sells.

Butler has The Esports and Gaming Lounge and took two teams to New York City on the school’s first road trip to compete in the Big East Conference championships before the coronavirus shut down the world.

The school started club gaming 2017 and "it quickly grew from there," said Eric Kammeyer, the director of Esports and gaming technology.

"Some people thought it was going to be a fad," Kammeyer said. "A lot is happening without borders, without having to travel across the world. It is sports without borders. The future is bright for it. We’re only scratching the surface."

Colleges feel they must attract women. Esports are, or can be, coed, but there hasn’t been much co.

One study indicated 35% of all Esports players are women and women make up 30% of viewers but are even a smaller percentage in the professional ranks.

"It’s absolutely an area of growth," Kammeyer said.

Renchik, captain of Butler’s League of Legends team and president of the school club, said by playing in other sports growing up, "I learned a lot of strategy and tactics, but I wasn’t that great at traditional sports."

He feels somewhat like a pioneer in Esports.

"The sports are incredibly young," Renchik said. "They’re incredibly green. I’d say my level is equivalent of semi-pro. You’re on a ladder against like 2 million people. Those guys (pros) practice 10 to 14 hours a day. It takes so much dedication."

Johnston, captain of Butler’s Rocket League team, said he can definitely see Esports in the Olympics one day.

"Absolutely," he said. "It’s one of the coolest sports."

Johnston is no latecomer to gaming.

"The first game I ever played was probably on PlayStation 1 or Game Boy," he said. "I was probably 5 or 6. I’ve been doing it my entire life."

Johnston said his parents probably still wonder what Esports are doing for him.

"But I’m doing really well in school, so they can’t say much," he said.

Johnston, who is majoring in digital production and Spanish and wants to make films, was in on Butler’s startup, something of which he is proud.

Even after he graduates and stops competing, he is sure Butler’s program will keep growing.

"It’s super exciting to see the growth on our campus," Johnston said. "It’s super fulfilling. It’s something I helped build."

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