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Although students often spend Sunday nights alone, working on next week’s homework to make up for a weekend spent with friends, Matthew Wang, Columbia College junior and president of the Columbia eSports team, spends the night on Discord with more than 200 other members. At first glance, the server may seem quiet—nobody is constantly chatting or playing music when in fact, everyone is immersed in gaming as shown in their profiles: League of Legends and Overwatch scrimmages, or their nightly game of Minecraft or Hearthstone.

However, experienced users know that the server always has an underlying surge of energy. When Discord is open in the background of the computer, it’ll blink often as members log on or off. Discord also has a livestreaming function, allowing other members to see someone’s screen as they eat dinner and plan their Minecraft castle together. The sense of community can motivate members to train or even just have more fun.

During a pandemic, the same immersive feeling has been lost in the traditional sports world. For example, there is no underlying energy or connection when shooting a basketball alone in the backyard. During these uncertain times, traditional sports have lost their usual luster: Even the title-clinching game of the NBA Finals this year only had 5.6 million viewers, less than a third of the 2019 finals title game viewership of 18.3 million views.

The opposite can be said for esports, as the industry has continued its ascent. The global esports market is projected to become a billion-dollar industry in 2020, growing another 15.7 percent, or $149.4 million, from 2019.

Professional esports players don’t need to be as physically gifted as your traditional athlete, and for most events, there are smaller audiences chanting and booing. However, if you enjoy sports for the competitive and cooperative spirit, esports can be just as appealing. The mechanics shown by professional players, though less noticeable than a dunk, can be thrilling. Being on Twitch can sometimes feel more interactive than being at Madison Square Garden during a Knicks game. Esports retain the key spirit of traditional sports, and the pandemic has proved that esports is better adapted to the increasingly digital world.

The Columbia eSports Discord channel, a microcosm of the popularity and connectivity of esports, is always packed with both local and international players. At midnight in New York, many people linger in the Discord channel as members in Paris wake up and those in Shanghai play a game of League of Legends during their lunch breaks. When traditional sports were brought to a halt by the pandemic, millions turned to League of Legends as a substitute for the NBA playoffs or European soccer Champions League knockout stage games. Since online games can be played and watched anywhere with an internet connection, they are far more accessible.

Nico Aldana, a Columbia College sophomore, was one of many who hopped on the esports bandwagon this year. He joined the club to find players who wanted to compete with him, which he says “adds a lot more” to gaming. While watching esports this year, he’s been really impressed by how the professionals completely transform the look of the game with their skills. Playing and watching esports with the club has really helped him keep in touch with the Columbia community. “If we were on campus, I’m not even sure that I would have joined, but I’m glad I did,” Aldana says.

Wang, in contrast to Aldana who just joined the scene, revived the club his first year at Columbia. Wang entered Columbia as a member of the track team, primarily running 110-meter hurdles. Throughout his freshman year, he couldn’t focus on anything other than track during weekdays, but luckily the esports club was small enough to manage on weekends alone. It was quite a mess managing everything at the time.

“I don’t know how I actually did it. [The track team] practiced 11:30 to 2:30 and we had to lift 4:30 to 5:30, so I would get home pretty tired, " Wang says. “But my freshman year, it was just the Overwatch team … and studying, I mean, we are at Columbia.” He eventually left the track team his sophomore year to dedicate more time to schoolwork and the esports club, where he is one of the five executive board members.

Wang and his club co-leaders—Alexi Monovoukas, a junior, and Sebastian Rossi, a sophomore—all started playing console games, such as Halo, when they were children. In high school, they gradually started moving to well-known esports games, but played mostly with friends. Back then, they didn’t play in any organized competitions, and the gaming community was tiny.

Besides the competitive aspect of esports, the three enjoy the camaraderie, which is a big reason they rebooted the esports club at Columbia. When Wang was a freshman, the esports club was inactive because of low interest, so Wang re-established it. For Wang, Monovoukas, and Rossi, this isn’t just a gaming club, but an esports club where they compete in teams, requiring cooperation to win victories and prizes. “The Columbia sports teams don’t get together with just a random group of people playing football,” Monovoukas says. “They have a team … [similarly] I think it’s way better to have a core group of people inside a larger community of gaming.”

The first thing Rossi set out to look for when he arrived at Columbia was the esports club because he spent a big chunk of his time in high school gaming with friends. He found that the esports club was a great way for him to quickly find like-minded people at Columbia, and it helped him find his place here. The three of them all agreed that their best friends at Columbia are all in the esports club.

Although they started with just six people on the Overwatch team, the esports team now competes in almost all team-based online games, including League of Legends, Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Dota. The team’s schedule resembles that of a typical club sport: members practice at least once or twice per week in two-hour scrimmage blocks, play weekly games, and occasionally scrimmage with teams from other schools. The teams usually send invitations in the Discord channel to invite people to watch them face Cornell, Northeastern, and other schools live on Twitch. Wang used to be on the Overwatch team himself, but he has gone back to Taiwan since the pandemic and is too far away to get a good connection to the North American server on which the Columbia team plays. Along with team practices and streams, Columbia’s esports club also hosts online intra-club tournaments on the most popular games and viewing parties of large professional tournaments.

For Wang, his time with esports has led to internships and new career path ideas. This summer, he interned with Blitz, a sister company of North American gaming giant Team SoloMid. Blitz offers an artificial intelligence coaching app for players around the world to improve their gameplay, and Wang, a computer science major, helped Blitz improve the analyzing ability of the coaching app. Wang believes that for a computer science major, these new businesses could be much more appealing than jobs that already exist.

“When you are a computer science major, what do you really want to do?” Wang says. “Do you want to be making websites, do you want to be making games, or do you want to be doing something related to esports?”

Compared to esports, traditional sports’ finances have been particularly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Because three-quarters of their revenue comes from media rights and sponsorships, esports fanbases and viewership were not negatively affected by competitions going fully online. On the other hand, due to their tremendous complexity, traditional sports organizations asked players to take pay cuts in order to keep their essential employees. For instance, FC Barcelona earned $203 million euros less than projected in 2020. Even though FC Barcelona’s revenue is the same size as that of the entire esports industry, its decline this year is larger than the growth of the esports industry’s revenue.

For some in esports, however, unemployment isn’t a concern. Wang saw his transition to esports not just as a decision to shift his competitive outlet, but also a savvy career move. One might think that quitting a varsity sport means giving up solid networking opportunities and spending time in the inconsistent esports industry would be bad for finding internships. However, Wang explained that although esports is young, Columbia still has impressive relationships with the major esports organizations.

Nicole Jameson, the CEO of Evil Geniuses, an esports organization that has shaped North America’s esports industry since its founding in 1999, is a Columbia alumni, offering a partnership for club members and inspiration to take their esports ambitions pro.

In fact, Evil Geniuses, recently reached out to the esports team in October to provide students with an opportunity to join their Discord channel. Students could ask questions regarding a career in esports, attend seminars, or hang out with the staff playing in prized tournaments.

Although the odds of being a professional esports player are low—Wang compared them to those of being a professional football player—the growth of esports offers more opportunities to pursue jobs related to gaming, such as coaching, analyzing, marketing, and even creating. To pursue an esports career is not to simply play more video games, but rather to expand one’s interests and chase the quickly expanding industry.

NBA teams have recently adopted the use of artificial intelligence to analyze videos in an effort to help coaches and players run smoother offense and analyze opponents’ offensive tendencies, but the app is difficult to publicly distribute because amateurs don’t play basketball in the same team environment. Sports analytics in other professional sports also possess the shared difficulty of publically implementing their methods for individuals.

In contrast, individual gameplay is so similar in esports to the professional level that this AI could be monetized and popularized. In similar ways, many other aspects of professional sports analytics, such as scouting your opponent, can be popularized.

Although esports may not yet be as exciting compared to traditional sports, and the whole industry is still the size of a single European soccer giant, there will be opportunities to pursue esports job positions already present in the traditional sports industry and also positions in new businesses, such as Blitz.

“There is definitely a career path in esports,” Wang says. “It’s not gonna be as defined and well-structured as econ or CS, where you do X, Y, and Z to get X job.”

Because of the countless paths, Wang worked with people who had different skill sets and different backgrounds during his internship. Despite their differences, they all shared the same love of gaming. Every day after work, Wang and his colleagues would get together and play Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Overwatch, or League of Legends. For Wang, work was always fun because it was easy to make friends and converse.

When comparing his experiences on the track to those in front of the computer, Wang found that the key components of sports remain in esports.

“I will say that the competition is pretty much the same. It can be just as competitive, and the team aspect is still there, and the amount of effort and work you put into the team is still the same,” Wang says.

The biggest advantage esports potentially has over traditional sports is that its matches seemingly go on for forever. One doesn’t feel tired playing games in the same way they can become exhausted in doing physical athletics.

“I would say that I wouldn’t be able to do any more than [three hours of track practice], but for … competitive gaming, I can sit down and practice for five, six, seven hours and not get too tired,” Wang adds.

The esports team has also been getting more attention from the Columbia community, especially from the administration, which is planning to get the club a gaming room and perhaps even establish a varsity esports team.

“[The pandemic] got the ball rolling for us,” Wang says. “If we want to get that gaming room, we’ve got to be able to get back on campus first!”

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