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School of Mines Welcomes Varsity Esports Team

SDSMT University Relations

Video games are a multi-billion dollar industry, and many colleges around the country are capitalizing on the broad appeal. This fall the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology joins the ranks of schools that sponsor so-called esports teams.

Wyatt Engel is a senior majoring in computer science. He fell in love with massive multiplayer online games when he was in middle school, and he still plays them at games nights on campus. These games allow hundreds of players from around the world to interact in real-time. They can challenge each other or work together for a common goal. Engel is now president of the School of Mines Gaming Club, and he says these online experiences opened his eyes to new possibilities.

“I guess I just realized it was a whole other platform where people can compete and you can build up camaraderie with the people that you’re playing with, just like traditional sports,” says Engel.

Games  like World of Warcraft or League of Legends seem to be growing in popularity. Engel says universities  around the country are establishing esports teams that compete in leagues not unlike a football or baseball team. He says some schools even offer athletic scholarships for gaming. And these things are coming to School of Mines. This fall, it will be the first school in the state to offer a varsity esports program.

The trend is also appealing to faculty. Jon Kellar is a metallurgical engineering professor at School of Mines and one of the advisors for the Gaming Club. His teenage son got him interested in online games.

“I knew something was going on downstairs after hours with him and his friends," he says. "And then so from there--more than just curious, I wanted to find out what’s going on on our campus.”

He asked his students how many of them play video games.

“It was 80%. So that tells me we’re going to have different levels," says Kellar. "A lot of the varsity team will kind of have the teams that compete at the intramural level, but we’ve got a fanbase.”

Kellar wondered if there was an opportunity to use video games to recruit students and make them better engineers. Computer science professor and fellow club advisor Paul Hinker is sure of it. He says video games help students build skills that are in-demand in the workforce: “Employers are coming and saying, hey we need your students to know more about autonomous vehicles, for instance.”

He says the characters that players control in games like League of Legends are similar to autonomous equipment that follows basic commands. And the fast-paced nature of the competition  gives students an edge in real-world situations.

“They’re doing very high frequency context switching, which means redirecting their attention very rapidly between jobs. Which is exactly the sort of thing the military’s gonna need if you’re managing a fleet of robots or a fleet of drones.”

Hinker says there can also be  a financial opportunity for the university.

“It’s not just your kids playing games in the basement anymore--not the business aspect of it at least.”

Hinker says  the $100 billion video game industry supports sponsorships, hardware vendors, and other elements of gaming. There are gaming arenas going up around the country, and the rise of streaming sites like Twitch means there’s a market for people who just want to watch the games. That’s another way gaming is becoming more and more like traditional sporting markets.

When senior Wyatt Engel became president of the Gaming Club two years ago, he says it  focused more on community events like game nights. But he wanted to focus on competitive teams because he saw the potential for growth.

“So we started holding tryouts for all these different games," he says, "and just over the past two years we’re able to increase the number of competitive teams from two teams to 11 teams.”

He says the club now has more than 100 members. This fall the School of Mines’ varsity League of Legends team will compete under the athletics department, and players will need to qualify.  Engel hopes the rest of the club teams continue the tradition of giving everyone a chance to play.

“I really like not making any cuts and trying, like, if someone is passionate about being involved, try to get them involved, and just try to grow every year.”

He says that’s a great thing about gaming: anyone can learn, and it has little to do with physical ability.

Paul Hinker knows calling gaming a “sport” can seem like a misnomer, since it doesn’t include physical exercise.

“But there’s a lot of mental practice that goes on," he says. "There’s a lot of logic involved, there’s a lot of team building, communications.”

And those skills are a big benefit to students. Freshman electrical engineering major Joe Klinger also goes to campus game nights. He says it’s helped him become a more effective communicator. He says when you play alone at home, you’re randomly matched with other players.

“But when you play on a team," he says, "you all know each other really well. Like my four teammates are some of my really good friends that I made this year.”

These e-athletes are challenging the stereotype of lone gamers in dark basements lit by computer screens. And esports teams are challenging the idea of what it means to be a sport at all. But as Wyatt Engel and many others are learning, these games provide new opportunities to compete, build marketable skills, and even form lasting friendships.