Maine Colleges See Career Potential In Video Game-Based Sports

May 16, 2019

If you are like many people of a certain age, you might view video gaming as little more than brain-numbing escapism, and as time better spent outdoors, in nature or playing sports. 

But consider this: the nation of  Denmark's ministry of culture in April released its first official strategic plan on competitive video gaming — citing its economic, cultural and career potential. In fact, a growing number of colleges and universities, including two in Maine, have launched their first-ever “esports” programs, which pit gamers against each other in the virtual arena.

Davin Egan, a player at Thomas College and a member of the school's first-ever esports team
Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public

"Oh, I'm so sick of this...I'm so sick of getting hit by dynamite."

Getting "dynamited" there in a 2-on-2 match of the popular survival game Fortnite is the player known as "Hurricane_Mane" — known to his parents as Ryan Hemenway.

He is soon to be "Ryan Hemenway with a Masters of Business Administration from Thomas College in Waterville,"  but he might just decide to play games for a living instead.

"Ideally, I'd like to," he says. "I mean, right now I stream on Twitch, YouTube, etc. So I'm dabbling in it."

Hemenway is a member of the school's first-ever esports team. It is also the first in Maine, and one of about 120 around the United States. Nationally, Hemenway is one of the top-20 Fortnite players in the country on the PlayStation platform, and he is the top-ranked player in New England across all platforms.

In the world of esports, that is a bit like being a top draft pick for the NFL. His abilities could attract the attention of a recruiter, earn an invitation to join an international team and even earn him sponsors.

"I've gotten some success with it," he says. "Not the level that I want to achieve, but it's a grind, so you've just got to keep at it. Growth is slow but it does happen if you're committed to the process. I'm not anticipating stopping doing this anytime soon. As I've told myself, as soon as it stops being fun, that's when I'll stop doing it."

If the last game you played took quarters or involved running around a maze, you might be unfamiliar the modern world of esports. Here is what you need to know:  

The games are often multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBA), or they are real time strategy games, or battle royale games, which involve elements of survival, scavenging and outlasting a number of opponents. Things might blow up. Teamwork is a must.

Some popular games, such as Hearthstone, are basically souped up, digital versions of old-fashioned table top card games, like Magic the Gathering or Dungeons and Dragons.

The games can be watched and called live, just like football or hockey games. But to know what is going on you must learn the gaming parlance.

There is no official central governing body for esports — no set seasons, no holy grail trophy or decades-old game rules. In fact, the game play can change significantly with the release of a software update from the developer.

Thomas College coach Martin Schelasin now coaches, with a specialty in the game League of Legends.
Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public

The games are chosen largely by how popular they happen to be and if there are enough players to form leagues. And, yes, schools call the players "athletes." But there really is not much organization yet.

"Anyone who is currently in esports at the collegiate level is a trailblazer," says Martin Schelasin, the Thomas College esports coach. "You have something that is just completely fly by the seat of your pants. There are no standards yet. You're creating the rules, you're creating the model as you go."
 
Now only in his mid-20s, Schelasin has already played World of Warcraft professionally under corporate sponsorship, retired from international competition, and graduated from high school — in that order. He now coaches, with specialty in the game League of Legends.

While gaming as an organized college sport is still largely in flux, Schelasin says it is an industry that is already creating jobs.

"I would say at this point that anyone who doesn't see it as a legitimate career path just doesn't understand the industry," Schelasin says. "You're looking at a multi-billion dollar industry with thousands upon thousands of jobs that range from everything from broadcasting, coaching, playing. You name it, there's some section of the esports industry that needs it. And, so, professional opportunity is undeniable."

And a second Maine school appears to agree. About an hour down the road at Central Maine Community College (CMCC) in Auburn, students are filling a brand new esports arena, practicing their skills at Rainbow Six Siege, Counterstrike and other games.

Mallory Mercier at CMCC's new arena
Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public

CMCC will launch its own esports team in the fall, but is now also piloting Maine's first-ever esports-focused degree, esports management, which has attracted more than 20 applicants so far.

Program creator Margaret Brewer says she has observed high growth rates in participation, brand investment and marketing. She says it became clear that the school should respond.

"So, as a business instructor, I said, 'Well, what can we do to help support this industry? What can we bring the people of Maine and future students?'" Brewer says. "If you tell someone what sports management is, most people have heard of that and they know what that is. This is just 'E' sports management and it delves into that growing side."

Liberal studies student Mallory Mercier says she is "thinking about changing to esports management soon."

Mallory Mercier at CMCC's new arena
Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public

"Just the amount of time I spend thinking about it, and like learning more about it on my own," Mercier says. "I enjoy it.  I could talk to you for hours about esports, but I can't really hold a conversation about my English class. That's kind of how I see it."

Mercier says managing a professional esports player would be something she could be passionate about — assuming she does not turn pro herself. She is planning to try out for the team in the fall and compete in Fortnite Battle Royale.

But in order to make the squad, she is going to have to impress CMCC's new esports coach, Zach Kimball.

"How is recruitment going?" I ask him. "Has there been interest?"

"Oh, there's been plenty of interest," he says. "Oh, my goodness. For every game, there's at least 30 people."

Kimball says he is planning two- to three-hour practice sessions, including health and nutrition requirements, which he says are just as important for an e-athlete as it is for someone chasing a ball.

But is anyone actually watching these matches as they would turnout for a Saturday afternoon college football game? Kimball says yes.

The 2017 NHL Stanley Cup final attracted about 29-million total viewers. In 2018, he says, the Superbowl attracted about 98-million viewers. And for the League of Legends world championships, Kimball says, "League of Legends alone, which is not even including all of these [other] sports, had like 200-million. Yeah. Yeah.  It's going to be huge."

Originally published 4:20 p.m. May 15, 2019.