Embracing e-sports

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 6th of August, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up, e-sports.

On July 28th, Kyle Giersdorf won $3 million by playing video games. The 16 year old beat out 100 other competitors to take first place at the first-ever Fortnite World Cup.

EICHER: Online games are a big deal. Global revenue is estimated to hit $1.1 billion this year. Gamers can turn a hobby into a lucrative career. In 2018, the League of Legends world championship had almost 100 million viewers…that’s more than the Super Bowl.

REICHARD: It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that more and more colleges want in on the action. Anna Johansen is here to talk about gaming on the college level. 

Good morning, Anna.


REICHARD: Tell us what it looks like for a college to get into gaming and why they’re doing it. 

JOHANSEN: It’s actually pretty similar to a college starting a football team or a debate team. Except now they’re creating e-sports teams. That’s the official term for competitive gaming.  

REICHARD: What’s in it for the colleges?

JOHANSEN: Colleges see the massive growth in this area and they know if they have an e-sports program, they can attract a lot of students, but they can also get a lot of advertising and sponsorships from companies who want to supply gaming tech like headsets and keyboards.

REICHARD: How many students and schools are we talking about?

JOHANSEN: There are over 3,000 college students who compete in e-sports in the United States. And the number just keeps going up. In 2016, there were seven schools that had esports programs. Now, there are about 130. 

REICHARD: How are schools attracting students to play on their teams?

JOHANSEN: Just like they would with regular sports teams: scholarships. Schools with e-sports teams gave out about $15 million in scholarships in the last three or four years. They’re also building massive arenas. Full Sail University in Florida opened a $6 million e-sports arena in May. It has room for 500 spectators. 

REICHARD: I think most of us probably have an idea of what it takes to be on a regular college sports team. What does it look for an e-sports competitor?

JOHANSEN: In theory, it’s like any other college sport. One player at Maryville University said his team practices about 40 hours a week on the game League of Legends. 

REICHARD: That’s a lot of time…

JOHANSEN: Yeah. Five to 10 hours a day on top of regular classwork. But it pays off: Maryville has won the League of Legends collegiate championship three times in four years. 

REICHARD: So what does a tournament look like?

JOHANSEN: At this tournament, each school had five players competing at a time. They all sit at computer consoles wearing headsets. That allows them to be in constant communication with their teammates and their coach. Up on the screens behind them you can see the actual game: animated characters running around zapping each other with brightly colored flashes and explosions. And then, of course, there are broadcasters giving blow by blow commentary. 

AUDIO: They’re going for the tower, it’s just support, he has some thick skin and a hungry appetite, but there’s a big bad Walrus trying to pick up the pentakill—PENTAKILL FOR WALRUS!!! [Crowd screams]

REICHARD: Sounds intense!

JOHANSEN: Yeah, it was kind of entertaining.

REICHARD: Well, we know there’s lots of money involved. Are there any downsides?

JOHANSEN: Actually yes; partly just because it is uncharted territory. There isn’t a ton of research on the long-term effects of such extensive gaming. But there are some studies that talk about a few health concerns. A lot of gamers struggle with eye fatigue because of all the pixel-generated images. They also experience back pain and a lot of hand and wrist problems. That’s because they’re making hundreds of quick repetitive hand movements every minute.

REICHARD: So not too surprising there.

JOHANSEN: Yeah, I think the researchers were more surprised by the mental toll that gaming takes. With traditional sports, you have time to acclimate to the level of attention and pressure you’re going to experience. But with e-sports, you can go straight from playing games alone in your bedroom to playing in front of hundreds or thousands of people. That’s a lot of pressure. You’re also processing a lot of information and making split second decisions over and over again for hours. It’s mentally draining. And it’s hard to get away from it when your entire life is on a computer—schoolwork, friends, work, everything.

REICHARD: How does that affect students?

JOHANSEN: There have been a number of players who have experienced panic attacks for the first time while gaming. They get up in front of a crowd and the pressure is too much. That becomes a consistent issue. Gamers tend to burnout and quit at very young ages. Most of them don’t play past their mid-20s.

REICHARD: Yet people still do it.

JOHANSEN: Yeah, people still do it. One gamer pointed out what may be the biggest incentive. He said that by competing in college, you can finally “get your parents off your back for playing video games.”

REICHARD: I’ve got one of those in my family. Anna Johansen is a WORLD reporter based in Chicagoland.  Thanks, Anna!

JOHANSEN: You’re welcome, Mary.

(Associated Press/Photo by M. Spencer Green) Robert Morris University students practice League of Legends. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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