On October 21, 2016, thousands of frenzied fans flocked to Madison Square Garden to witness their favorite teams duke it out for a championship title. As the teams filed in, sporting uniforms emblazoned with corporate sponsors, the crowd that had been holding its breath in eager anticipation erupted. Commentators broke down the action play-by-play; supersized screens depicted every bead of sweat in immaculate detail; and millions of fans clamored to watch online, sending shockwaves through social media. And invariably, about three miles away at Columbia University’s Lerner Hall, a swath of Ivy League twenty-somethings assembled shoulder-to-shoulder to watch the livestream.
Although it garnered more viewers than any Knicks game last season, the spectacle in question was not an NBA-sanctioned event. Far from it. It was the League of Legends World Championship. Madison Square Garden, reconstructed three times in its almost 150-year lifespan, has long been revered as a symbol of modern sports and entertainment. Little did its creators know that it would one day be the venue for one of the largest video game tournaments ever staged.
There are very few certainties in life. I count three: death, taxes, and the wayward disbelief of esports denialists as they start to see how big of a deal this is. Playing video games has been considered a subversive act since time immemorial. Had Bertrand Russell been around to witness it, he might have seriously reconsidered his theories on the existence of universals. The parental distaste for video games is an ideological common ground that voids geographical, political, ethical, and moral boundaries all the same. Even more daring is the subject of esports. Delegitimized not only by parents and educators but also by people who do “real” sports, esports faces existential attacks on numerous fronts.
However, events like the League of Legends World Championship suggest that esports is here to stay. Outperforming even the NBA Finals, last year’s League of Legends World Championship final boasted 43 million viewers. And this year’s attracted even more. At the vanguard of this growing esports movement is none other than the millennial generation, which grew up immersed in multiplayer games. Even though the gizmos have changed over the years, hermetic gaming communities have long existed on college campuses. Now, legitimized by school administrations themselves, they feel alive. Berkeley and UT Austin are on a growing roster of schools that even offer scholarships to students who play on their esports teams.
When it first formed in 2013, the Columbia esports club had no more than 10 regular members, according to club founder David Chen, who graduated last year from Columbia College. Before that, gaming communities on campus were disparate, often specific to triple-A titles like Super Smash Bros., StarCraft, and League of Legends. So when Chen attempted to band them together under one flag, it was no surprise that an even larger group began to coalesce. The club currently has over 250 members in its Facebook group, 20 to 30 of whom, according to Chen, are regulars.
A diehard gamer myself, even I was surprised by the turnout at my first Columbia esports club event last fall. Once I had parked my MacBook—ill-suited for the occasion—on a table beside five far-superior souped-up gaming setups, I gauged the room voyeuristically. Believe me when I say that, between the no-holds-barred “hype man”-ing and bite-sized bouts of matchplay, my ears might have developed tinnitus. But as is typical when it comes to all things esports, the casual, if not rugged, exterior belied the meticulous planning, structure, and forethought that went into the enterprise. It was this way by design, not by accident.
Just as collegiate sports has the NCAA, collegiate esports has a parallel set of governing bodies. One of them is Tespa, which hosts the most popular tournaments in the scene. Backed by the gaming giant, Blizzard Entertainment—the company behind games like World of Warcraft and Overwatch—Tespa is hypothecating $1 million in scholarships this season alone. And much like the NCAA, it requires participants to uphold strict GPA and academic requirements in order to receive awards from its tournaments.
Last school year, several Columbia teams organized through the esports club cut their teeth in Tespa tournaments and other leagues in the fall season. The results were impressive to say the least. A Columbia team consisting of Chen, Charles Wang, a junior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Devin Setyawan, a senior in CC, placed in the top eight in the Eastern region for Hearthstone, a popular online game with over 50 million players. The nail-biting showdown was streamed in real-time on Blizzard’s official livestream. In addition to in-game footage, professional cameras provided by Blizzard showed the Columbia team in an East Campus dorm room as team members made strategic decisions and last-minute calls.
“It was pretty exciting,” recounts Richard Shin, a CC senior who’s now vice president of the club, “In Hearthstone games, it’s just the three of you in a room. You just talk out what you want to do. You have 30 seconds per turn, so it’s really rapid discussion trying to figure out what the next move is.” Shin also contends that these games are “very spectator-friendly,” even for the uninitiated. Prominently featured health points clearly indicate the status of players whether they’re on the brink of victory or in the throes of defeat.
Indeed, over 20,000 people tuned in to watch their best-of-five matches against Rutgers in the regional playoffs—more viewership than a typical Columbia football game.
Chen believes that if Columbia’s esports teams can perform well enough, they might even inspire prospective students to attend the school. All else equal, if a high school Overwatch standout is choosing between Yale and Columbia, for example, the prestige of the schools’ respective esports programs might just tip the scales one way or the other, he explains.
As I sit with Shin on the eve of fall break last semester, he lets me in on a well-kept secret. Although Lerner Hall’s WiFi is nothing special, the building is equipped with Gigabit internet. Not to mention, Lerner 569—the club’s base of operations—is one of the few rooms in the building with live ethernet ports. Long story short, if you show up to the esports club’s gaming sessions, they’ll hand you an adapter and you can get internet that’s 10 times faster than what you’re getting in your room. As any gamer can wholeheartedly attest, fast internet means no lagging or glitching, so it makes for the best possible experience. I can’t help but wonder if this is the explanation behind the esports club’s growing success.
But maintaining a top-ranked esports team is no straightforward task. Tespa competitors average one match per week during the season, so the necessity of daily practice comes without saying. To avoid wasting precious time finding a room, Columbia teams often practice together remotely, communicating over headsets. Then, for high-stakes matches, they might make the time-sinking portage down to Hamilton Hall, where rooms can most readily be booked. As one can imagine, having your teammates beside you serves as a bulwark for morale and promotes teamwork in a way that voice chat simply cannot.
Still, practicing every day doesn’t quite cut it. Most of the people I talked to stressed that top-ranked esports players are distinguished by their uncanny ability to remain level-headed in high-pressure situations. In a 5v5 game like League of Legends, you and your teammates are susceptible to making small slip-ups that can easily cost you the game. Sometimes, one poorly timed decision to assail the enemy team, siege their base, or lay waste to a dragon is all it takes. When this happens, the impersonal, ephemeral nature of the internet makes it hard to resist the twitchy urge to give your teammates an earful. There’s even a name for this phenomenon: raging. Needless to say, the drawbacks of raging clearly outweigh the benefits. Professional players keep cool when thousands (and sometimes millions) of dollars in prize money are on the line.
“At high levels … it really comes down to how much you analyze your play,” explains Kennan Davison, who was formerly ranked among the top 200 players in North America for League of Legends. Going through the motions is one thing, but understanding mistakes made during the game and internalizing feedback is what often separates the high-tier players from rank-and-file ones. And beyond that, there’s a certain level of natural talent that’s more or less expected. To stand out among the 100 million people who play League of Legends on a monthly basis, you really have to be something else.
This year, the esports club is on the rise, and its success isn’t limited to Hearthstone. This past season, the club’s Overwatch team, dubbed “Bnetplayers," was ranked among the top 12 in the Eastern region. With the spring season fast-approaching, the team is poised to advanced its standing even further, says Shin. He also jokes that Bnetplayers is the best team in the Ivy League. (Cornell is the only other Ivy that competed last season in Overwatch, a popular shooter game in which teams of six players brawl for territory and other objectives on confined maps.)
In fact, Shin is working with Jessica Huynh, a SEAS sophomore and current president of the club, to host the first-ever Ivy League esports tournament. The hope is that it will take place this coming fall. They’ve already gotten buy-in from all of the esports clubs in the Ivy League and have enlisted potential sponsors.
What Chen began as a side project during his sophomore year has become a thriving community that’s poised to outlast him. In gamerspeak, you might call him OP. Short for overpowered, the word is typically reserved for a kind of world-historical person or group in a video game. But it seems appropriate here.
Towards the end of our interview on Discord (the voice chat application for gamers—which boasts over nine times the daily active users of Slack), I ask Chen if esports club has had any bearing on what he’s decided to pursue post-graduation. “I actually got my job through the esports club,” he laughs. A collegiate esports league had sent out an email about an internship opportunity at Twitch, the Amazon-owned video platform for gaming, whose application included a mandatory response to a prompt about “what esports means to you.” Needless to say, Chen submitted one. Months later, while at an esports club meeting, he got a call requesting an interview. Not long after that, Twitch flew him out to the Bay Area and he netted a job for the summer. He’s now working there full-time.
Meanwhile, back on campus, the next wave of Columbia esports athletes are on the rise. On several Friday nights during the semester, the chambers of Lerner 569 will resonate with stock gamerspeak utterances and enough high-end computing paraphernalia to put the computer science department to shame. But to gawk at the Nvidia graphics cards and mechanical keyboards is to miss the point. Like a kind of sideshow, these tools of the trade dissemble their chief operators, obfuscating the entire social dimension to boot. As the implements themselves change, swept up by the tailwinds of technological progress, it’s the players that remain the same, after all.
Behind the bleating cries of slain digital heroes, the jostling of ethernet cables, and the faint clicking of Cherry MX keys, lies a gregarious crowd caught furiously in the tangle of its own world order. And it’s just a matter of time before its most vocal critics throw up their hands and rage-quit.
Have fun leafing through our first issue, and subscribe to our weekly newsletter, As We See It!
Correction: February 2, 2018
An earlier version of this article misstated one of the members of Columbia’s Hearthstone team, which ranked eighth in the Eastern Region for Tespa's Hearthstone Collegiate Championships. The third member of last year's team was Devin Setyawan CC ‘18—not Tony Wang CC ‘18. The Eye regrets the error.