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Esports starting to click

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Ashley Rad, 21, practices a video game Monday at Southern Oregon University.
SOU gamers taking their competition to the national level

In a dimly lit room with a red hue where Rocky the Raider keeps a watchful eye, Southern Oregon University students huddle twice a week for several hours in front of a bank of computers.

But they’re not there to earn a passing grade on the number of words they can type per minute. They are immersed in the world of Esports (electronic sports), a form of competition involving video games that is growing in popularity.

That was part of the inspiration behind the university forming an Esports team, according to Ashley Rad, an SOU senior who is the Esports lead.

“It offers a more unique experience for students,” she said. “There’s a lot of students here who love sports, digital media, movies, board games. … Esports is an in-between of all of those things.”

These days, SOU Esports has a reason to celebrate. It was recently accepted as an affiliate of the NACE StarLeague, the national league of college Esports.

Considering SOU’s size compared to other western universities, joining the NACE StarLeague is “the best way” to get the SOU Esports team recognized nationally, according to Rad. It could also grow the team’s membership.

“It helps people on campus know we’re part of something much bigger now,” Rad said.

Kyle DeFrancisco, operations manager for NACE StarLeague, wrote in an email that he is “super happy” to have SOU’s Esports team in the league.

“They are a program that is working toward competing at the highest level and eventually grow to a varsity level program,” DeFrancisco wrote, before praising Rad for her leadership.

Despite the good news, SOU Esports team is only eligible to compete through the end of the school year, but its members are hopeful they can raise enough money to continue competing within the league.

“No matter what happens, I’m just really happy that we got the opportunity to play,” Rad said.

Gaming sessions

Although gaming can be done remotely, the team has pretty sweet digs for anyone who shows up to the “Esports Hub.” Respawn brand chairs, designed specifically with gamers in mind, include a tall back and a head rest pillow attached. The Logitech headphones include plenty of padding around the ears and a narrow band that allows a person to talk without bending their neck out of shape.

“We have some of the best equipment,” Rad said.

SOU’s Esports meetings revolve around four games: “Apex Legend,” “League of Legends,” “Rocket League” and “Valorant.” All of them are considered battle-shooter games, except for “Rocket League,” which is described in online reviews as “soccer, but with rocket-powered cars.”

All of those games are popular in both professional and college-level Esports, according to Rad.

“When I pick games, I reach out to the students and see what people would like,” she said. “For the ones we have, it is based (on not only) interest, but what schools are also playing.”

SOU Esports has played against big-name schools like University of California’s Los Angeles and Irvine campuses. On Monday night, they squared off against New Mexico State University.

“Even if we win or lose, I’m just excited to see people putting that effort in and showing they care,” Rad said. “A lot of people in Esports say, ‘Oh, video games; it’s a thing you do for fun.’ It’s hard to get people to stay committed. So it’s nice that I can get some people who say, ‘yeah, let’s compete today.’”

Those competitive teammates include SOU student Nathan Rothchild, a freshman.

“I just love playing video games and the competitive insight on that,” he said. “No matter who you are, if you’re incapable of doing other sports, you play something on any type of console (and) play all over the world.”

Ismael Alvares, a freshman, who played Esports Monday night, agreed with his teammate.

“What’s going through my mind is making sure my team knows what I’m thinking of and what my next move will be, so they can move around and help me and the team as a whole,” Alvares said.

He said he has been playing video games since he was little and always had a competitive streak about him.

“I felt like (joining the team) was the right step to further my passion,” Alvares said. “It’s a feeling that I don’t really get that often when I play a normal game myself. Playing in a tournament … really does get me going a lot more.”

Are Esports really sports?

A debate is playing out worldwide on whether Esports can be compared to physical sports.

“It’s easy and accessible to get into, unlike a traditional sport,” Rad said.

Kevin Palmer, a team member who played baseball as a kid, argues Esports are much like traditional sports.

“When it comes down to it, they’re both competitive in their own right,” he said.

Christian DeVore, an emerging media digital arts major, is living proof of Esports’ competitive nature. He played so long and aggressively once, he had to ice his thumb for several days.

“It wasn’t a sprain; it wasn’t that bad,” DeVore said. “Some of the muscles within my thumb had tightened and basically restricted some of the movement in my thumb until it got better.”

But an injury is a rarity. Most of the time, DeVore’s mental fitness is being tested. He described Esports as “fast-paced” mentally — one in which you’re constantly trying to predict other players’ movements.

“You’re taking all of your game knowledge and putting it all to use,” DeVore said.

Popularity and future of Esports

Jeremy Carlton, chairman of SOU’s business school, also oversees the university’s Esports management minor. Launched in the fall of 2020 at the same time as the team, the program is ideal for those who want to go into events management, procurement, marketing and merchandising — the list goes on.

“Billions of people are gaming the world over,” Carlton said. “There’s certainly … all sorts of opportunities that are tied to having a sense of understanding of Esports.”

He spoke of images of stadiums in places from Los Angeles to Beijing filled with Esports gamers.

“They literally have 50,000-plus adoring fans screaming for their teams,” Carlton said. “In some respects, it’s been almost like … the growth of all the Comic Con-type of events in the U.S. The same thing is happening in the Esports industry.”

Even though gaming has been around for years, the business school chairman said, the Esports craze has been brought on by virtue of the fact that most youth have had games or internet access their entire lives.

“The world, at this point, has been gaming most of their lives. I have students who grew up with the internet,” said Carlton, who was a teen in the 1990s, when the internet was in its infancy. “Now, we play games alongside each other worldwide. That’s pretty exciting to see this sense of togetherness that gaming has done for us. It’s been a long time coming.”

He has given advice to the SOU Esports team and wishes its members well.

“The fact that we can play against other major universities on arguably equal footing, even if we lose some and if we win some, it’s just nice to have all of these rich connections,” Carlton said. “I really hope that the Esports program not only takes off, but that it’s here to stay and will stand the test of time.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.