Esports are a joke, playing video games is a waste of time, and these kids need to lay off the Doritos and go outside.
Archaic views like this aren’t uncommon, but they didn’t hold much weight when the student-athletes from Université Laval threw off their headsets to hug and celebrate as confetti fluttered down around them. It was a fitting moment of validation for a group of players that had put their all into becoming the best collegiate Heroes of the Storm team in the world, all while holding down jobs, earning degrees and, perhaps unknowingly, paving the way for generations of collegiate esports players to come.
From the outside peering in, their 3-0 victory over the University of Buffalo looked so flawless, so easy, so smooth. Yet, just a few years ago, this opportunity never would have existed in the first place. They could still be solo queuing ranked games, but Heroes of the Dorm is something else entirely. The packed arena full of fans and the thousands upon thousands tuning in via streaming change the complexion of its legitimacy entirely. And it’s not the universities that have made it possible, rather a combination of publishers and organizers have teamed up to help university-based gamers find a home and lay the hopeful groundwork for a future filled with collegiate esports.
When collegiate esport organizer Tespa partnered with Blizzard in 2013, it was a foray into the unknown. For a time there were only small tournaments as Tespa picked up steam on campuses across the country. The breakout moment came in 2015 when the first Heroes of the Dorm tournament was played for over $450,000 in prizes, even being broadcast on ESPN. Three years later, Tespa’s sibling co-founders Tyler and Adam Rosen are still infectiously passionate about what they feel Tespa can bring to collegiate esports.
We really believe in empowering these students to build rich and fulfilling communities on campus.
“We really started with the simple vision of bringing students together to play games together,” Tyler said, “Very quickly we realized that there was a big opportunity… so we set out to see how far we could push it and how big we could grow the community.” That growth has been sustained year-over-year since Tespa’s inception and now they’re sitting north of 260 chapters at universities around the world. They see that type of growth as an indicator that they’re tapping into a massive and largely underserved demographic on college campuses.
It’s just a matter of reaching those players that can be a pain point, which can often come down to students simply not knowing what Tespa does — I know I didn’t at first. It’s a surprise to most, but they’re responsible for much more than just hosting huge tournaments. Tespa views their commitment to collegiate esports as twofold: “From the community side, we really believe in empowering these students to build rich and fulfilling communities on campus,” says Adam, “Then from the competitive side we really love the idea of hosting these intercontinental leagues where universities can come together, form their best team, and be pitted against one another. So, from the competitive side we’re much more top down and on the community side we’re much more bottom up.”
Their two-pronged approach to developing a competitive collegiate scene employs wildly different strategies. Tespa is not only involved in developing and running the massive collegiate tournaments they’ve become known for, but also for providing a framework for building communities that double as committed fans. For Tespa, it’s about trying to create a place that gamers in college can call home, but also giving those campus communities a payoff in the form of large-scale events that can be truly life-changing.
Organization and structure is just one part of the collegiate esports equation, though. It would be worthless without the players themselves and even with Tespa’s support they face a unique set of challenges all their own. As much as popular media would like you to think otherwise, these esports players aren’t one-trick ponies. They’ve got schooling, jobs, and semi-professional gaming to juggle all at once.
When people start to see that this is more than just a kid eating Doritos at his desk… that’s when people will start to recognize it.
“When people start to see that this is more than just a kid eating Doritos at his desk… that’s when people will start to recognize it, you know? And at its root, it’s really not that much different than a sport.” says Marc “Markybottz” Coiro, flex player for the University of Buffalo. That stigma he feels stamped with — the kid shoving chips into his face while messily gaming and forgetting personal hygiene — is an image that is still somehow burned into the minds of people across the country. It can turn would-be supporters into vehement skeptics, and that’s something that this set of players may be able to change in time, but that hasn’t made their struggle for legitimacy in the public eye any less frustrating.
For supposedly being places of higher learning that champion freedom of thought, it feels backward that most universities are so begrudgingly defiant to adopt esports players into their varsity ranks. But this fact only highlights why Tespa has become a crucial tool and advocate for collegiate esports players. “As long as the game companies continue to support [college esports], it can go really far,” says Cal Poly Pomona’s Joshua “Josh” Childers, who was keenly aware of the uphill battle he and his teammates face. “It’s hard to convince state-funded schools to invest money into video games. If you can show some monetary gain — maybe.” These players know that they’ll have to fight for every inch of ground they gain, whether that’s in-game or in real life.
It may look like a majority of Tespa’s focus is on the players at the very highest echelon of the skill spectrum, and at an event like Heroes of the Dorm, that’s completely true. Yet, most of the players I talked to use Tespa’s services in some way to help socialize and befriend like-minded players at their schools, even if they aren’t officially Tespa chaptered. “They have quarterly LAN parties where we get 300-350 people there,” says Childers with a smile, “The first year there was like 40 people, now there are 300 people. They’re pretty fun to go to.” If Tespa is what you make of it at the community level as the Rosen brothers suggest, Cal Poly Pomona Tespa members look like they’ve recruited a small army of gamers that call their chapter home.
Another important consideration is that, similar to many NCAA athletes, most of these players don’t have a shot at going pro, so their studies truly matter just as much as their gameplay. The future success of Tespa, and collegiate esports as a whole, hinges on organizations like Tespa providing a community building tools that augment and add to what should be some of the most enriching years of these players’ young lives, not taking them over entirely.
Most of these players don’t have a shot at going pro, so their studies truly matter just as much as their gameplay.
That’s the kind of future that these players and organizers like Adam and Tyler Rosen are so excited about creating. “Our philosophy is that gaming is, and should be, a force for good,” says Adam Rosen as he thinks about what collegiate esports could look like in the coming years. “We want the entire world to look in at the amazing feats these students are accomplishing and realize that not only are they top academics, but they’re also top athletes.” That’s an opportunity to get excited about, and while there’s bound to be bumps along the way, that’s not something that Tespa, or their members around the world haven’t already experienced.
Regardless of the challenges players, Tespa, and even Blizzard face, there’s a shared sense of optimism that’s palpable at an event like Heroes of the Dorm. It’s a moment that feels like it can shed the skin of Heroes of the Storm’s lukewarm popularity and issues like the players’ struggle for validation, instead refocusing on what makes esports a phenomenon in its own right. It’s the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, all set against a backdrop of college rivalries and cheering fans.
Tespa’s quest for collegiate esports legitimacy has no end in sight, but perhaps that’s all the motivation they need. Players and organizers alike seem to accept the unwritten rule that real, palpable change will come slowly. It will never manifest as an unstoppable torrent, or as a quick metamorphosis — rather it will come from changing one mind at a time, and that’s a challenge both players and Tespa are embracing. Change will come when Université Laval’s Daniel “Hairyblob” Gourdeau wraps up his PhD in Medical Physics, and then fondly recalls his time as an instrumental player on a collegiate team that won a championship in conversations years down the road. Interactions like that can change minds as potently as the most skillfully run tournament.
Whether members are the elite players at their school or casual players that utilize Tespa’s services to forge friendships through gaming, there’s a seat at the table for everyone. It’s up to the students to build a solid foundation on campus, and it’s Tepa’s job to showcase these gamers to the world. It’s daunting to take on stale, outdated stereotypes while simultaneously building an esports future that college students can embrace openly — but if both parties remain committed, collegiate esports is only going to keep growing.
Ian Nowakowski is a freelance esports writer and MOBA expert for IGN and Lolesports. You can follow him on Twitter here.