In June of this year, the MAC announced the creation of an independent esports conference – the Esports Collegiate Conference (ESC) – to facilitate and foster high-quality competition among college esports teams.
With a history of competitive club esports, NIU was a natural fit as one of the founding members of the conference, which now includes Northeastern University as well as the Mid-American Conference (MAC) schools. NIU will field three varsity teams in the conference this year. The Rocket League team is currently in the midst of its official fall season, while the League of Legends and Overwatch teams are participating in preseason tournaments as they prepare for their spring conference seasons.
“I’m thrilled that NIU Esports is now a varsity program and part of the Esports Collegiate Conference,” says Conner Vagle, general manager of NIU Esports. “The varsity classification allows us to offer additional support to our student athletes in partnership with various academic and wellness departments across the university. That support is part of what the Esports Collegiate Conference has charged us with providing, and it helps us bolster our athletes in their academics while also developing our esports programs and providing the coaching necessary to help our teams improve.”
Vagle notes that joining a varsity conference also offers the chance to build a fan base and develop rivalries with other ESC schools. “Playing within a conference gives us the opportunity to get to know who we’re playing against, year in and year out,” he says. “That not only helps us prepare for those teams and develop our strategy, but it also allows us to form fun rivalries back and forth with some of those teams. For instance, our League of Legends team already faced Ball State twice last season, so as they approach tournaments this fall, they’re really looking forward to playing Ball State again.”
As part of the transition to a varsity team, NIU Esports held tryouts this September and has announced a roster of starters and reserve players. Vagle is pleased that the esports teams are welcoming many new athletes, including more women than in the past and a number of first-year students. Vagle says the Rocket League team will be an exciting one to watch over the next several years because the majority of players on the team are freshmen. “That gives us a really interesting look at possibly how the next few years can pan out – and it gives the players an opportunity to develop their skills over the long run,” Vagle says.
The esports student athletes are relishing the opportunity to grow as players and connect with teammates.
“I’m excited to be a part of the League of Legends varsity team because I love to compete,” says Junior Jeremy Steegmueller. “It’s so much fun for me to see the team grow throughout the year and to see how far we can go and how much we can succeed. So far, I think meeting all the new people who have been joining the team and being able to interact with them, especially in this time with COVID, it’s amazing and has been a highlight for me.”
Senior Nathan Villanueva says he’s excited to be part of the team because he loves competition and teamwork.
“Competition can be very intense at the varsity level and that only increases my enjoyment and excitement to play,” he says. “Highlights of the practice process are the times when everyone agrees what we need to fix something or collectively we all fix something together. Getting all five of us on the same page is really the goal of practice.”
Villanueva would like the NIU community to recognize that – like traditional sports – esports require a lot of hard work.
“A lot of people I talk to about being on an esports team believe that I sit at my computer all day and play the same game and call it ‘practice,’” he says. “Technically, they aren’t wrong. However, there’s so much more to it. A lot of mental attitude and thinking must be practiced. Certain mechanics of the game must be practiced repeatedly, and even physical movement is involved because if you can’t react as fast as your opponents you will always lose.”
“I treat playing the game like a job,” Villanueva continues. “I play for hours, and during those hours, I’m working on fundamentals or specific things that I need to practice. I’m not always playing purely for fun. I would compare it to a traditional college athlete. They show up to set practices for teamwork, but they also practice on their own to improve their physical body or do special training by themselves if they need it.”
Villanueva, Steegmueller and the rest of the players hope the NIU community will watch the teams’ esports tournaments on Twitch TV at twitch.tv/niu_esports.
“We’re going to be broadcasting all the matches throughout the year on that channel,” says Vagle, who is also a shoutcaster – the esports equivalent of a play-by-play announcer. “I think newcomers might be surprised by how exciting the matches are! There’s strategy, skill and the element of surprise – all the elements that make live sports so appealing to watch.”