Column by Ty Smith, Managing Editor
In case you haven’t heard, Aquinas College has become one of the first colleges in Michigan to add an official e-sports program starting this fall. We’ll be starting off strong, competing in six different games across many genres of competitive play. When I first heard of the new sport, all I felt was excitement. But to my surprise, most of the people I told reacted with a blank stare. Why?
I can’t say I don’t sympathize with their initial confusion. After all, gaming, competitive or otherwise, isn’t exactly what one thinks of when they think of a collegiate sports program. I’ll yield that, despite the fact that the AQ E-sports team would be required to keep gym hours, it’s not the most physically invigorating of sports. It is, however, a sport that creates unique opportunities to foster community and acceptance among a demographic that doesn’t generally get to experience that through traditional physical sports.
Physical sports, by their very nature, tend to be discriminatory. This isn’t a bad thing, per se. After all, going into a sport without being physically up to the challenge is painful at best — but it leaves a large segment of the population out of the running. After all, most people are not able to meet the skill level required to participate in sports like hockey, football and lacrosse.
On the other hand, competitive gaming is much more accessible to a more diverse population. There are no divisions based on gender. There is no requirement to be able to withstand a hit, possess strong endurance, or have physical strength. Anyone who can hold a controller can play games competitively, and with the rise of adaptive controllers such as the Xbox Adaptive Controller, even more people now have the ability to participate. Everyone, including those who do play traditional sports, can join in on the fun.
Some might believe that there’s no way that society could accept the viability of games to be a competitive sport. After all, no one wants to watch others play a game, even if they’re really good at it. Right? The very existence of Twitch, a streaming service dedicated to watching people play games, would say otherwise. E-sports have already been enthusiastically embraced. The Rocket League Championship in 2018 raked in 18 million views, comparable to the 2019 NBA Finals, which were watched by 20 million people. Superbowl LIII was watched by 103 million people, nearly the same amount that watched the League of Legends Championship (100 million).
Alongside being a very popular spectator sport, competitive gaming offers an opportunity for the best of the best to make good money too. The winning team of the League of Legends Championship won a $1 million prize, and the Fortnite World Cup handed out $30 million in prizes, with one lucky teen winning $3 million dollars all for himself. Even on the local level, there is money to be made. The Super Smash Brothers Ultimate scene is very widespread, and it’s common for the winner of local tournaments to be awarded $50 to $100.
The question that remains, however, is this: Was it a good idea for Aquinas to make an e-sports team? Despite its widespread acceptance and financial viability, the e-sports scene has traditionally subsisted outside official regulations, and collegiate competition was, up until recently, unheard of. Even though the college scene is exploding in popularity, there are still only five teams in all of Michigan to compete with. Given the wide array of games available to compete on, it seems that the college’s focus might be split too many ways.
These are all valid concerns, and ones I share myself. That said, I think that the only way to grow the scene is to jump in and getting Aquinas in on the ground floor of the burgeoning new sport. This will ultimately be beneficial for both e-sports and Aquinas. The competitive gaming scene is only going to grow as time goes on, and while larger schools like the University of Michigan debate whether or not to make their student organizations into official e-sports teams, we’ve already started our journey. That’s going to make us a big name in e-sports. Hopefully, that influence will remain when larger colleges begin to compete as well.