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West Virginia Wesleyan launches first varsity eSports program in the state

BUCKHANNON, W.Va. — For decades, video games have been the source of feuds between parents and children, attempting to pry kids away from the television toward homework or outdoor activity. Now, video games are more than just a popular past-time but a potential career path.

West Virginia Wesleyan College is offering the state’s first varsity eSports program, joining about 70 other collegiate organizations across the country.

“They practice and they compete, and then they basically take this to the next level outside of just playing with their friends after school and that sort of thing. They take it to the next level of competition — online or in-person tournaments,” said Kevin Wu, who was named as the institution’s first eSports coach. “They start competing where there are real stakes, there’s money on the line, there’s placements, there’s sponsorships and that sort of deal. So it really is just taking competitive gaming to the upper level.”

Games played by varsity eSports teams do often include popular sports-based video games like Madden, FIFA and others, but an eSports team member’s repertoire continues much further, Wu said.

“And they are competitive. There are actually tournaments and teams that sponsor and pursue those titles,” he said. “However, a majority of these sports are not actually sport games. They are throughout various genres, just competitive player versus player, so it’s games where you play against another person, head on head, just like in real sports.”

And of course, much of the competition is online, without having to travel to other colleges and universities.

“There’s a lot of methods we can do to make sure we can coordinate these with different schools,” Wu said. “There’s a lot of tools that the game developers offer to schools. They’ll offer them special online waiting rooms and that sort of deal to coordinate competitions and a directory where we can reach out to each other. I do expect there might be some light traveling, based on which games we play, but obviously some are better in person.”

While there are similarities to other athletic teams at Wesleyan, there will be obvious differences. For instance, recruitment will be a bit different from the institution’s other athletics.​

“First off we’ll be going through our traditional channels with admissions and our counselors, but we’ll also be extending our reach beyond the traditional methods. Whereas a lot of eSports is digital, so we’ll be taking a lot of this online,” Wu said. “We’ll be evaluating candidates digitally, looking at performance tracking, a little bit more of an increase in scope than what we would traditionally be expecting, I think.”

But Wu doesn’t expect recruitment to be difficult, as he said the interest in eSports is continuing to grow.

“The growth has been a little bit more than I think what anyone had expected. It’s been fairly exponential over the years,” he said.

Worldwide, Wu said there’s quite a bit of competition at the high school level, in what’s referred to as the High School Star League.

“They start to give out scholarships for people that perform well and some cash prizes,” he said. “Most eSports athletes, professionals, actually begin their careers actually begin their careers around their later years in high school, some of them a little bit earlier, and some of these kids are landing multimillion dollar contracts at the age of 14, 15 even because there’s less regulation, obviously.”

eSports first took off overseas, rising during the mass building of broadband networks in the late 1990s in South Korea. From there, it soon became a global phenomenon, Wu said.

“Over the years it’s become more and more of a thing as younger generations are more in tune with technology, gaming, digital media and that sort of thing,” he said. “It’s sort of (been) a natural progression across the globe with the United States, Europe and everywhere. It’s kind of grown to become this sort of international phenomenon.”

Wu founded the eSports program at his former school, Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and he’s eager to help the program get its footing at Wesleyan.

“The number of schools that pursue eSports has doubled in the last year alone, and that’s pretty significant. That’s not small, that’s a pretty big sign,” he said. “I think especially with the kids and the younger generation that is interested in eSports, the number of schools that offer it aren’t really matching up with how many kids are interested in this right now.”

Wu himself started gaming at a fairly young age, and once he began playing “League of Legends,” his interest started to snowball. Now, he’ll help a whole new group of gamers develop their skills and knowledge of the industry.

“A lot of it is program development right now, developing the infrastructure and the road map to really build up this program,” he said. “It’s not just coaching the players themselves, it’s really about building the program from the ground up.​”

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