Esports, or competitive gaming, continues to grow in popularity and scale, with the industry generating $900 million in revenue and an audience of 395 million in 2018, according to gaming analytics firm Newzoo.
The Overwatch League's Grand Finals even received coverage on ESPN last summer.
In Arizona, the Arizona Interscholastic Association, the governing body of high school sports in the state, will offer esports as an activity starting this month, with state titles in two games.
The first will be in Overwatch, a first-person shooter (FPS) game from Blizzard, in which two teams of six players each take control of characters with diverse abilities and strategize to control or complete objectives.
The second will be in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the most recent iteration of Nintendo's fighting game series.
East Valley high schools could field teams starting in the fall. Horizon Honors High School in Ahwatukee currently has a Gamers Club that includes video games alongside card and tabletop games as its focus of interest.
At the collegiate level in the East Valley, the future of competitive gaming is still taking shape.
ASU lacks a formal esports program, but it is not a wasteland in regard to the activity. In 2016, a team of six ASU students dubbed the “Real Dream Team” won “Heroes of the Dorm,” a national collegiate esports tournament in Seattle, and walked away with some hefty scholarships.
Last year, the university hosted the sold-out Fiesta Bowl Overwatch Collegiate National Championship in its Sun Devil Fitness Complex.
The Arizona State University Esports Association, a student-run esports club, continues to meet on the Tempe campus.
Student-led collegiate esports organizations are still the norm in the Valley. Chandler-Gilbert Community College has one, and Mesa and Scottsdale community colleges have in the past.
Park University launched a program under its athletics department on its Parkville, Missouri, campus this year. While the Gilbert campus does not currently offer esports, it is something Park Gilbert is keeping an eye on for the future.
Benedictine University in Mesa has taken that leap, launching an esports program administered by its athletic department last fall.
The decision to “treat (esports) like an athletic sport” at BenU is an acknowledgement of its potential, according to Frank Woodford, director of the esports program at the university.
“We know this is going to be a very, very strong intercollegiate sport in the next five or six years, meaning every school is going to have it and it’s going to be organized by the school (with) official, appointed coaches and training sessions and locations on campus,” he said.
The term “esports” encompasses a multitude of video games, each with its own distinct mechanics and goals. Comparing Overwatch to Super Smash Bros. can be like comparing football to wrestling.
Given this, Woodford said, it would not make sense “to have one person managing the Overwatch team and the League of Legends team and Rocket League” once the program is fielding “10-15 different teams” in various games – the kind of growth they are anticipating.
“We really envision there being a director of the program and then those teams each having their own leadership, whether that be a coach (or) if we have quality student leaders,” he added.
For its inaugural season, BenU’s focus has “almost entirely been Overwatch and League of Legends,” Woodford said.
He stressed that esports “is very much like any other traditional sport.”
“We’ll have the kids meet up twice a week,” Woodford said. “It’s almost entirely together.”
Calling team work “very, very important,” Woodford said, “It’s good to have everybody in the same room where they can talk and it’s not over the mic or over a computer screen…. They can be right there to talk about things when they happen.”
Another similarity Woodford sees between esports and conventional sports lies in the various roles that players assume in a game like Overwatch.
Whereas football has positions like quarterback and running back that are essential to a team, Overwatch has different classes that are just as vital.
They can include “damage,” characters built toward dealing damage to the opposing team; “tanks,” characters that can take a beating and protect more vulnerable teammates; and “support,” which can heal and enhance teammates’ performance.
“We need certain people playing that role in that game,” Woodford said, “So we’ll talk about the strategy for that specific game in terms of game strategy and individual player strategy.”
The team can then coordinate which players are best suited in which role.
“The dynamics are really important,” Woodford added.
One advantage Woodford and the coaches and players in BenU’s esports program have over traditional sports is the instant gratification of data.
“A lot of these games nowadays are very analytics- and statistics-based, so we’ll have those immediate results, you know, percentages, rates, averages,” Woodford said.
For its collegiate competitions, BenU’s esports program has made use of Pure Esports, a Gilbert-based gaming facility that Woodford said “has been phenomenal.”
On campus, Benedictine has hosted events to engage the student body with the program, including “little random tournaments… just for the novice student,” Woodford said.
The reception has been positive, and Woodford said he has “to find a place for people to sit and watch” the gamers as friends and family want to engage more with the sport, with some parents expressing disbelief that they’re visiting a college for esports.
Ultimately, this bewilderment may lessen as esports merges more into the mainstream, a movement Benedictine intends to be on the frontier of. And the university isn’t afraid to put money toward that goal.
“We are the only institution in Arizona that does offer competitive scholarships for our esports students,” Woodford said.
“They’ve invested a lot of time and effort and energy into what they do, so we feel like we should invest into them, and that's no different than a baseball, or a soccer or a women's basketball player on our campus…. We feel that they have earned that.”