BY JEFF FALK
PHOTOS COURTESY OF LVC
There exists a school of thought that says the proliferation of video games has cut into the participation of traditional sports. Lebanon Valley College subscribes to a different school of thought – it being the higher-learning institution that it is.
LVC’s position is that video gaming is a sport in and of itself. It’s called Esports – the ‘E’ stands for electronic – and yeah, it’s a thing.
Esports is the Flying Dutchmen’s newest varsity sport. Lebanon Valley College was the first university in Pennsylvania to officially sponsor an Esports team.
In its second semester of intercollegiate competition, the Flying Dutchmen’s Esports program puts on a whole new spin on the concept of athletics.
It is many things, but above all Esports is a learning experience. And isn’t that what college and intercollegiate sports are really all about?
“Esports is really competitive gaming,” said Lebanon Valley’s Esports Director of Operations Dave Shapiro. “What it is is video games played at a casual level and taking it to a very competitive level. At first it was electronic gaming, and Egaming became Esports. It’s not people getting together and playing Madden (vidoe football) on a couch. That’s not what we’re talking about. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes, just like other sports.
“For people who don’t understand it, I would tell them to keep an open mind,” added Shapiro. “If you do, you might start to love the game. You can watch all of them on-line. Most people will find something they love about it. Esports are a highly spectator sport. If you played wiffle ball growing up, this is Major League Baseball to that.”
The Flying Dutchmen Esports team is made up of over 40 men and women competing side-by-side, many of whom have backgrounds in other sports. They compete against other Esports teams from colleges across the country.
“The communication started last December, there was a senior leadership meeting and we talked about Esports,” said Shapiro, who grew up playing baseball and soccer, among other things. “The question was raised, ‘Is it something LVC would be interested in?’ We had presidential approval. We moved forward and we announced it. On the first day of spring semester, we had 40 students turn out. A week later we had our first scrimmage. It was a very, very quick turn-around.
“It wasn’t one individual pushing it,” continued Shapiro. “It was sitting there for a little bit. We knew other colleges were doing it. It was interesting and LVC jumped on it. It was a no-brainer. There was nobody in our neighborhood doing it. That’s huge for us, to have that type of distinction.”
Lebanon Valley College’s Esports team actually competes in seven different video disciplines – counter strike, fighting games, hearthstone, league of legends, overwatch, rocket league and smite. Depending on the game, each one requires about six starters and two substitutes.
“Men and women compete together,” said Shapiro. “It’s the first time we’ve had a true co-ed team at the college. What you’ll find is that some teams are all male and some teams are about half and half. It’s a mixture at the college level. And 98 percent of the time there is no traveling involved.
“It’s almost like track and field,” Shapiro continued. “We have 41 players on our roster, and that’s broken down into different games. Each team has a slightly different make-up. Most of the time we find players are focused on one or two different games. They’ll focus in on games they’re super serious about.”
Unlike most sports, there is no jumping, throwing or dribbling in Esports. But there are practices, game-planning and coaches.
For the sports purists, Esports may be difficult to understand and hard to accept.
“It’s a different type of sport, and it creates different opportunities and different challenges sometimes,” said Shapiro. “Obviously the first thing is that it’s not physical. We’re not running. We’re not hitting. But the one thing we find in Esports is the heart rate, the emotion and how it makes the brain work. The heart rate does get up there. These students are putting their all into it.
“It’s the same as other sports as far as practice and communication and coaching,” Shapiro added. “If you think about NASCAR drivers, they’re not hitting anything, but they’re doing a lot of work in those cars. Our athletes are highly engaged. They get their highs and lows. The one thing we focus on is practicing well. It’s just like any sport, we’re trying to find a balance. And we all come from athletic backgrounds.”
Many of the student-athletes currently competing for the Flying Dutchmen Esports squad have been playing video games for years. Not only are they highly-skilled, they’re also very competitive.
“Our best recruits typically share a few traits,” said Shapiro. “Their communication skills are top-notch. They’re communicating just like any of our other student-athletes. We want to know, ‘How do they relate to others?’ Those skill sets are very important to us. The skill matters, just like in other sports. You want them to take chances and risks.
“More than anything else, it’s just a students’ will to compete,” continued Shapiro. “If they don’t, they’re going to get destroyed. These are some of the best players in the world. We are looking for people who aren’t over confident, but confident enough. The students we bring into Esports probably played another sport. We even have cross-athletes.”
Yet another aspect of Esports is that it is a reflection of today’s modern culture, that it is helping to meet a certain current need. In some ways, Esports is just providing something that student-athletes want.
“We started talking about, ‘Why?’ said Shapiro. “This is an outlet our students didn’t have before. We desperatley care for our students. We want the best for our students, all the time. It was, from Day One, an overwhelming, ‘Yes.’ We were able to move very quickly on it because it was a no-brainer.
“This exists, in such a large way,” added Shapiro. “It takes time. It takes energy. It takes practice. Our students have to try out. It’s a very large endeavor.”
So when it comes to Esports, LVC may be ahead of the curve. But the potential for the growth of the sport seems limitless.
“Our level of competition is different than any other sport LVC has,” said Shapiro. “We’re playing tons of games, but we’re not visiting any other colleges. Everything is done on-line. When we started, there were 50 or 60 varsity teams across the country. Lebanon Valley College has supported this 100 percent. We hired coaches. We are a varsity team. Now there’s around a hundred or more (varsity teams) across the country, but not enough for different divisions. It’s a weird landscape right now.
“We’re going to see a level of growth,” concluded Shapiro. “Now we’re aware of groups of students who may or may not have been interested in LVC in the past. We know there’s going to be more competition for those students.”