SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — On the second floor of the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Student Center on Montgomery Street, visitors could be greeted with a chorus of shouts and roars as if they were inside Georgia’s Sanford Stadium on a fall Saturday.
Instead, they would be greeted by a towering screen, a fleet of bodies behind computer screens and onlookers cheering on the action on screen.
It may seem foreign to the traditional sports fan — video game matches met with the same intensity as Georgia vs. Florida? But for those students and faculty working in SCAD’s esports program, it’s just getting started — and this is much bigger than you can imagine.
“It’s a matter of helping people understand because a lot of people see esports and you only see what you see somebody sitting down and you see them playing,” Ian Escalante said. “And so that looks very sedentary. It’s a matter of helping them understand how similar (esports players) really are to other athletes.”
Escalante joined SCAD in 2018 and has been working as the university’s director of eSports. He added that he enjoys keeping his players physically active as if they were apart of a football or basketball team because reaction times and quick movements are as essential to playing esports as it is running a fourth quarter offense.
“There is a physicality in esports; it’s just less noticeable. We’re talking about macro commands, control of your hands, (and) reaction times that are faster than a lot of the players I’ve seen. What makes a special baseball player, it’s not how strong he can hit it, it’s what are their reaction times? Are they recognizing the pitch? Are they recognizing the play? These are things that traditional athletes do all the time. But this is also what eSports athletes do,” Escalante said.
“They’re special physically in their hands, in the reaction time, in their ability to compute with all this information that’s being thrown at them. This isn’t something that anybody else can just do.”
Because of that massive accessibility, esports has become a billion-dollar industry and global phenomenon. According to market analytics company Newzoo, esports viewership eclipsed the one billion mark for the first time in 2019 (signaling a year-over-year growth of +26.7%) with sponsorship revenue around $456.7 million. By 2022, the company predicts the economic growth to exceed one billion dollars in revenue with viewership growing to around 645 million on average.
Popular games played by esports athletes includes “League of Legends,” “Overwatch,” and “Fortnite” along with war simulation games such as “Call of Duty” and professional sports simulations such as “EA’s Madden Football.”
SCAD offers two teams — “Overwatch” and “League of Legends” — and features 20 varsity players between the squads (11 players for the former and nine for the latter). Among the varsity Overwatch team is Avery Oliver, a junior illustration and concept art major, and Jae Teska, a freshman graphic design major.
Oliver said what has always impressed her during the matches is the intensity of the crowd and the camaraderie of the team.
“It’s just so exciting knowing that the people that care about you and care about your team,” she said. “They care about you winning (and) are sitting out there screaming their heads off, because as soon as your team captures the payload or captures the point or wins the map.”
Teska said SCAD appealed to him for his higher education because of the presence of the esports squad. An avid gamer himself prior to coming to the university, he said he was blown away when he saw the competition space for the first time. “I was baffled. This is not what I expected to be this big and it was,” Teska said.
Fitted into the second floor of the Student Center, SCAD’s esports competition space features a towering screen that projects the game being played onto it for visiting onlookers and fans while computers flank both sides. SCAD’s “League of Legends” team kicked off their season on Saturday, Jan. 25 against the College of Charleston –– ending in a swift 2-0 victory for the Bees.
“As a fan sitting out in the crowd, (it) is just a high. You’re just excited,” Oliver said. “You just feel like you’ve done something amazing for yourself and for your team and for the university and it’s a whole other feeling.” Escalante added that there is something truly special about the space.
“It’s very rare to see something like this and even if there were other universities that have something like this, they don’t have any space we have. This is such a unique setup. It’s beautiful,” he said.
For Escalante, he said he’s familiar with a lot of the trepidation that people who are unsure of what esports is –– or even its presence as a sport. For him, training in esports is no different from working out with a football team.
“It’s just a matter of saying it’s not an athlete the way you would imagine an athlete. They’re not going to come in the door, and he’s six foot eight and 310 pounds, but they are special in every sense of the word,” he said. “This is not something that you can just drop. You can’t drop two months and then come back (to the level you) were. And so when they’re able to see that there are things that traditional athletes do that our esports players do, and that they do have the same amount of dedication time put in.”
Even if the physical toll doesn’t seem to sway traditional sports fans, the implementation of what the students are learning through esports has carried over into reality. Much as a basketball player or baseball player may pick up the essential traits of teamwork and camaraderie while playing the sport with others, esports athletes gain the same lessons. But not only that, their technical skills have become sought after in the job field.
“I’m competing on a six player team and even though I have no control over what anybody else is doing, I put in my work with my opinions and my thoughts into an overarching goal,” Oliver said. “In the end…communication, that’s teamwork and I feel like I can apply that to an everyday job.”
As esports continues to grow in popularity, it seems like more schools are following the lead of SCAD.
Even in the high school sector, local institutions such as Calvary Day School and Islands High Schools have implemented their own teams. Calvary Day finished as the runner-up in the Georgia High School Association’s 2019 “League of Legends” championship.
Escalante said he expects SCAD’s program to continue to blossom as interest continues to grow each year, as do the achievements by their current squad.
“I see the dividends of this culture already starting to establish and I really do see one way or another being in the competitive esports (space) for as long as it’s around, which is hopefully forever and very likely forever in one way, shape or form,” he said.
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