COLLINS: Lackawanna ESports Program On The Cutting Edge
Teddy Delaney is 10 minutes late for our interview, so he’s practically sprinting down the steps, making a hairpin right turn to get from one flight to another and the front doors of Lackawanna College’s historic Angeli Hall.
“Sorry about that,” Delaney smiled sheepishly. “Wound up taking a phone call from a recruit.”
Turns out, the kid lives in North Carolina — exactly the type of high school senior who likely had never heard of Lackawanna College, never mind considered attending. Not until Delaney helped start the type of program that might turn local college sports — not to mention your perception of what athletics is all about — on its ear.
Next month, Lackawanna will send the area’s first collegiate eSports team into action, advancing a worldwide trend into the region and putting Lackawanna on the ground floor of what might be the next big thing in college sports.
Traditional fans might have a difficult time considering teams of college students gathering together to play Overwatch, Rocket League and League of Legends on a fleet of Alienware PCs in a state-of-the-art gaming room inside Angeli Hall a sport and not a hobby.
Fact is, competing online against students at other schools around the nation might sound like a pretty cool club. Until a guy like Delaney starts talking about scholarships.
He can award up to 75 percent of a student’s tuition if he or she is a strong player, courteous to opponents and teammates and taking care of business in the classroom.
“It’s still a little surreal to me,” admitted Delaney, Lackawanna’s eSports administrator and head coach who only began submitting proposals for the program in January. “Never (thought about doing this). It was always a pipe dream; like, it would be great to work in the eSports industry or the music industry or Hollywood, or have something like that to fall in your lap. So, I’m beyond excited. I come to work every day with a smile on my face because I get to sit in front of these amazing machines and talk to kids who have the same interest as me, and I get to walk them through a college I’ve been part of for several years now.
“I don’t know how nationally recognized our eSports program is right now. But I know we want it to be. I know we plan to be. We plan to be a competitive team stream across the country. The door is open right now.”
Before anyone writes this off as some kind of elaborate attention grab for a college looking to expand its student base, consider two things.
The first is, while covering a basketball game a few months ago, an official from one local college, who I have know for years and has his finger on the pulse of the local college sports scene, approached me.
“Want a good column idea to keep an eye on?” he asked, before telling me about a local school that had been strongly considering starting an eSports program. Won’t mention what school it is, but I’ll say this: It wasn’t Lackawanna, which simply beat everyone else to the punch when it announced it would begin competing this fall.
The second: more people follow eSports nationally than you probably think, and not just a few more.
Last year, the World Championships for the popular League of Legends game were held in China. It drew 43 million unique viewers online and drew a peak concurrent viewership of 14.7 million. If that isn’t enough, the finale of the Intel Extreme Masters, an elite eSports tournament, drew 173,000 in-stadium fans to the event in Poland last year. Online, it attracted 46 million unique viewers, which broke the League of Legends record, according to Business Insider.
In short, millions are interested enough in the eSports phenomenon to tune in through online platforms like Twitch or YouTube, essentially to watch people play video games professionally.
Competitive gaming at the collegiate level isn’t as widely established.
In 2014, Robert Morris University became the first school to hand out scholarships to prospective students who excel at eSports, but the trend picked up quickly from there.
The National Association of Collegiate eSports, a nonprofit organized by member institutions to “lay the groundwork in areas such as: Eligibility, Path to Graduation, and Competition & Scholarships,” lists more than 80 members, including Lackawanna. It says it represents more than 1,500 student-athletes who have received more than $9 million in scholarships and student aid.
Delaney said he’s hoping to put together a 30-person team for the fall, and he already has 18 class schedules in hand for prospective members. Fact is, the team’s permanent home on the east side of Angeli won’t be set up and running until this week.
Once it is, the future opens wide for Lackawanna College and Delaney, who knows his might be the area’s first program, but won’t be the last.
“I like the fact we’re in on the ground floor,” Angeli said. “We have a lot of interest right off the bat. Our program is going to have a lot of kids. We’re hoping to build a program where the attraction is always going to be there.
“We’re going to have our name cemented in the collegiate eSports world.”
What that all means for college sports and Lackawanna College and the entire area is unknown. The tip of the iceberg, after all, is just now being scaled.
It sure is going to be interesting to find out if this gets as big as Lackawanna believes it can become.
Behind the plan
■ The team will compete in three games, with the possibility of adding more teams for more games in the future:
— Rocket League: Often described as “soccer, played with rocket-powered cars.” Rocket League has one to four players assigned to each of the two teams, using rocket-powered vehicles to hit a ball into their opponent’s goal and score points over the course of a match.
— Overwatch: Assigns players into two teams of six, with each player selecting from a roster of more than 20 characters known as “heroes,” each with a unique style of play whose roles are divided into three general categories that fit their role. Teams work together to secure and defend control points on a map or escort a payload across the map in a limited amount of time.
— League of Legends: Players assume the role of an unseen “summoner” that controls a “champion” with unique abilities and battle against a team of other players or computer-controlled champions. The goal is usually to destroy the opposing team’s “nexus,” a structure which lies at the heart of a base protected by defensive structures.
■ The college updated internet access across campus, and the team’s facility in Angeli Hall has its own separate internet entity. The school purchased dozens of competitive gaming-quality Alienware PCs that come equipped with G-SYNC technology from the computer’s tower to the monitor to eliminate in-game lag and glitching.
■ Prospective team members will adhere to the same standards for participation athletes in traditional team and individual sports provided by Lackawanna follow. They must undergo a physical and will be required to regularly participate in an exercise program put together by athletic trainers. They have to maintain certain grade point averages in the classroom, as well.
■ Member institution in the National Association of Collegiate eSports.
DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.