As business administration senior Ricky Peterson walked through the glass doors of the Austin Convention Center last spring, he was instantly teleported from an early May day in Texas to an alternate reality.

This new world was full of fictional video game characters who came to life through ultra-realistic cosplays, as if they were all brought from the far reaches of the galaxy for an interstellar competition.

No, Peterson hadn’t accidentally stumbled through a wormhole or taken copious amounts of hallucinogens; he was at Dreamhack, one of the world’s largest Local Area Network (LAN) gaming competitions. The event hosted hundreds of players in the same room competing against each other on their own individual computers in bracket-style tournaments for various video games.

Get your head in the game

Peterson’s specialty is Dota 2, a free online multiplayer arena-style video game. He and his team of Cal Poly gamers were invited to compete in a tournament at Dreamhack. Over the digital festival’s three-day span, the group lived out every hardcore gamer’s dream: being paid to play video games.

“The finalists were flown to Austin, Texas and we had all expenses paid, housing, everything for four days,” Peterson said. “We won scholarship money, which was awesome. It’s not something we anticipated going into the season.”

Creating a community
Now, more than a year since his journey at Dreamhack, Peterson is trying to unify and expand gaming culture in San Luis Obispo by creating the Cal Poly eSports Club. Though there are already several gaming clubs on campus, the new club would bring individual clubs together under the broad
eSports umbrella.

“I have gotten both Dota 2 and [the League of Legends clubs] on board,” Peterson said. “[Super Smash Bros], on the other hand, is difficult. Fighting games typically have their own eSports scene. I hope that they will be a part of Cal Poly eSports, but they’re still going to remain mostly self-run.”

The Cal Poly eSports Club is on track to officially begin operations by the end of this school year or, at the very latest, the beginning of next school year.

It’s a sport
Across North America, several universities have adopted varsity-level eSports teams, meaning the players are considered student athletes by the school and are even eligible for scholarships in their sport.

One of Cal Poly’s Big West Conference rivals, UC Irvine, is one of the leaders in the world of collegiate eSports. The university has a varsity-level team with scholarship players, a 3,500 square-foot arena equipped with a stage for competitions and a live broadcasting studio.

“Our arena is completely backed by our sponsors,” Jenny Song, president of the Association of Gamers at UC Irvine, said. “We have 80 computers that are donated. Most, if not all, of the companies that sponsor us have provided the scholarships for our league team.”

It was also reported that the Pac-12 will enter the eSports arena next school year, committing to live studio competitions and tournaments as well as an end-of-the-year unnamed Pac-12 championship event. In April, University of Utah became the first school from one of the NCAA’s Power 5 conferences to announce official plans for a varsity-level eSports team. A handful of student-athletes will receive partial scholarships to start, but, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the program hopes to have more than 30 student-athletes and coaches on scholarship eventually.

While some are still hesitant to classify eSports as a collegiate sport, it is not surprising that the industry is picking up steam in universities across the nation. Recent data published by Newzoo, a leader in eSports revenue tracking, suggests that the new-age sport could be a potential gold mine.
Data suggests the eSports industry is estimated to generate $696 million in total revenue this year, 41.3 percent more than the industry made in 2016, and is expected to grow to $1.488 billion by 2020. North America accounts for 37 percent of the global revenue, the largest of any region by far and 22 percent ahead of second place, China.

The driving force behind increased revenue appears to be the growing fan base that is estimated to balloon from 194 million this year to 303 million by 2020.

Possibilities at Cal Poly
If the industry keeps expanding at its current rate, Peterson expects eSports to become the next scholarship sport that is introduced to Cal Poly’s campus.
“I would say by 2022 or 2023, it’s going to be a legitimized sport at colleges,” Peterson said. “I don’t doubt that in my mind.”

Peterson knows of 90 people interested in participating in an end-of-the-year LAN party for Dota 2 and League of Legends. He said if the club adds Overwatch, a multiplayer first-person shooter game, the number of participants could grow to somewhere around 200 students.

“It’s easy to watch, it’s fun to watch and you don’t have to have this massive learning curve of trying to understand what’s going on,” Peterson said. “I honestly believe Overwatch is going to be the game that legitimizes eSports in college.”

If Cal Poly ever chooses to adopt an eSports team as a varsity-level sport, Peterson expects the organization will face even more ridicule than the industry normally does. Many people refuse to acknowledge the games as a type of sport because of the lack of athleticism involved in gaming. In Peterson’s opinion, there should be a distinction between “athletic sports” and “non-athletic sports,” but that they both are still sports.

“I do honestly think eSports are sports,” Peterson said. “The amount of training that [participants] do, the amount of preparation they put into every game, if you see it at a professional level you see some of these players put in more time than some athletes in your major sports.”

The adversity will be tough to overcome, but the toughest part of Peterson’s endeavor will be finding a building on campus to host the club’s events. If there are roughly 200 people interested in the LAN party, there will need to be a space big enough for roughly 200 computers.

“What saddens me the most is we are finally getting this interest and it’s restrictions with rooms that are available that are holding it back,” Peterson said. “I think it’s just going to be working with administration, [Associated Students, Inc.] and maybe Athletics, if they want to get involved, to find a way to make this work.”

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