Photo: Carlton Beener for Blizzard Entertainment
Last Saturday, May 12, the Heroic Four from this year’s Heroes of the Dorm tournament took place at the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, California. Universitié Laval, Cal Poly Pomona, Buffalo University, and Kentucky University battled it out, with Laval and Buffalo making it to an unlikely Grand Final event. In a quick 3-0 set, Laval brought home the first win for Canada in Heroes of the Dorm, along with tuition money for the whole team.
The event itself was fantastic, but everything surrounding it is even more compelling. In fact, having Laval win was a poetic ending to such an important esports tournament. Heroes of the Dorm is symbolic of the industry’s growth – a series of “firsts” that still has no end in sight.
Tespa is making esports culturally relevant
Daniel “HairyBlob” Gourdeau is a 24-year-old graduate student at Laval. He plays support for his team and, like most other players who gave pre-game interviews, he was quite excited for an opportunity to have his tuition paid for by winning the tournament. However, his school doesn’t seem to care about giving esports any attention.
“There is absolutely nothing esports related,” says Gourdeau. “There is almost no support from the university. Once we made top four, we tested the waters to see if they were open to making us more official, and we were met with a cold ‘no’. We didn’t expect much, to be honest. We know how the society in Quebec views gaming and esports.”
It isn’t just Quebec, though. Players from both Buffalo and Kentucky gave similar responses.
Esports clubs aren’t anything new at universities, however. I reminisced with Tyler and Adam Rosen, co-founders of college esports platform,Tespa, that the Brood War club at my school had about five people – and you had to know one of us to be a part of it. Social media wasn’t what it is today, and having a gaming club formally recognized and funded was laughable. “I remember those days very well,” Tyler said with a laugh as he sat down for a chat.
Indeed, we do. Talking about an “esports industry” wouldn’t have even made sense back then – at least outside of Seoul. Most people who loved competitive gaming did it on their spare time, much like today. Even those gods among us, such as Sean “Day9” Plott, went to school or had jobs at some point. In this way, esports – just like any other sport or activity – has always been important to those of us pursuing more traditional means of sustainability.
Unlike other sports or activities, however, esports carries a stigma with it. Gaming is a horrible waste of time, of course, and it’s only purpose is to distract people from their responsibilities. Adam tells me that when they do encounter resistance from prospective schools, it’s because of a lack of understanding. “They still think gaming and esports are things that people do in their parents’ basements.”
But that’s where Tespa is doing some of its best work.
“When we think about the collegiate ecosystem, we aren’t just thinking about college,” says Adam. “I think for us to have the healthiest collegiate ecosystem, what that means is we need to have the biggest base. So that means high schools, that means middle schools, that means elementary before that, all feeding into that collegiate ecosystem…When we think of what success means to us, it really means making esports a fundamental part of culture.”
The Rosens stressed that it’s about finding developmental opportunities and then layering in the support in different ways at all levels of play. As the pool of Tespa alumni grows, so too does the pool of ambassadors that can provide outreach to the next generation. Though collegiate esports is the “tip of the spear,” as the Rosens put it, cultural saturation needs to start at an early age.
Needless to say, that road is still long and under construction. Heroes of the Dorm and other collegiate esports are playing a massive role in patching that road up so that the esports industry has a more fluid future. All the boots-on-the-ground work being done right now is amazing, but equally as impressive is what goes into producing an esports consumer product.
High production value adds to legitimization
Following the rich tradition of quality collegiate sports events we enjoy on television, Tespa and Blizzard have made every effort to give collegiate esports the same love and attention. For Heroes of the Dorm, they spent the last week converting the home of Overwatch League to the home of the Heroic Four. Heroes of the Storm graphics and banner replaced the standard OWL fare that usually graces the screens and walls of the Blizzard Arena.
The arena itself is located within Burbank Studios, owned by NBC. It used to be home to Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show”, as evidenced by the various murals in the backstage halls and production rooms that still have relics from ages past. Today, those rooms are filled with the latest gear to ensure that esports events such as Heroes of the Dorm look and sound amazing. The Rosens said that people from ESPN and other sports networks have visited the arena and commented on how they’re actually jealous of what’s back there.
Having a quality presentation to show schools, parents, and prospective sponsors is incredibly important. If it looks like the real deal, they’ll be more inclined to treat the industry with respect. Say what you will about people needing to learn about esports on their own terms, but having a polished product is often very important for winning people over. I distinctly remember a discussion with a Killer Instinct pro who said if someone hadn’t showed him an Evo stream, he probably would have never considered making the leap.
As we, the esports community, journey forth into the future, we can do so knowing that there are passionate folks hard at work on a daily basis ensuring that a variety of opportunities will always exist. That a small group of Heroes of the Storm players from Quebec can win it all on the big stage, regardless of how tedious the circumstances might be at home. That parents and younger siblings can go to a physical place and cheer on their sons, daughters, brothers, or sisters. Maybe one day we’ll reach a point where having Overwatch League pros on NBC’s Today Show won’t be looked at as some strange, exotic thing, but even if we don’t, the future of the community and industry are in excellent hands.