A Lourdes University sports team brought home a conference championship last month. Some people probably won’t think the win is that big of a deal. Others may even question if the team members are real athletes. Read this column, and I will convince you otherwise.
The victory was in eSports, a varsity activity with 17 student team members on athletic scholarships at Lourdes, both women and men. They compete in four leagues that employ organized, competitive online gameplay—not to be confused with video games. Three teams compete in the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference (WHAC)—as do all varsity sports at Lourdes.
On the day I talked to coach Harrison Greer and four of his team members, they were just back from the WHAC esports tournament where their Overwatch team won the championship and player Drew Junion was named conference “Player of the Year.” Drew and teammate Jason Almony also received first-team all-conference honors.
“Lourdes is doing a good job giving eSports students all the same considerations that other sports have,” Coach Greer told me. “There are inherently some struggles to see eSports the same as other sports considering it doesn’t have the same physical component. But our athletes all have scholarships, study hours, physicals, drug testing and trainers. It’s a unique quality that eSports has parity with the other programs at Lourdes. Few schools do that.”
Two years ago, Lourdes broke into the Top 16 among eSports teams in the nation, and repeated the feat three seasons in a row. As a result, the team has generated its share of buzz at Lourdes, said team member Almony. “It’s treated pretty much like every other sport here, not exactly the talk of the campus, but you hear about it. It’s kind of a bubble thing. Like any other sport, people who are into it know about it. Students who like video games follow eSports and are kind of into that scene.”
Only seven colleges and universities offered eSports scholarships seven years ago. Now there are hundreds, according to Coach Greer. “Lourdes started its program early (in 2017) and built a dedicated eSports facility the same year. By comparison, the University of Toledo and BGSU still have club-based programs with no scholarships. And a lot of major universities such as the Big 10 have an eSports component, but are less likely to offer aid. So those big schools generally lose to the smaller private schools because they don’t support the program.”
Given the nature of their sport, I expected to find the student-athletes that I talked to pursuing interests and academic majors that would lead to careers in the tech industry. But their ambitions are much more diverse than that.
Cameron Garcia, for example, ran track at Southview but also founded a video game club at the school. Lourdes originally recruited him to run cross country, but his coach also worked with the eSports team and encouraged him to participate there, too. Now, he is a senior on the varsity eSports team and will graduate with a degree in exercise science. He already coaches the Northview eSports team and hopes to focus his career as a teacher and coach, and helping develop young players as a trainer.
Jason Almony grew up in Maryland and is working on a degree in digital media studies with an emphasis on marketing. He intends to work with teams at the pro level in eSports to strengthen their brand image and manage corporate sponsorship dollars. “Teams create partnerships with brands like Nike, Champion and Under Armor because those companies are targeting the younger generation. It’s a career field that’s pretty wide open right now,” he said.
He also intends to play at the pro level. While sounding realistic about his chances, he did mention that the “best in the world” eSports players can make upwards of $10-15 million.
Drew Junion, the recent “Player of the Year,” is a Business Administration major with sights on a dual path, too. Like Jason, he intends to pursue a professional career starting at the semi-pro level, however, “Mainly for individual passion … for the love of the game,” he said. The Louisville-area native also intends to use his degree to become a team director. Like a general manager in other sports, the director manages finances, works on player development, and oversees policies and procedures.
All the student-athletes I met agree that the emergence of eSports nationwide has been a huge opportunity for students who didn’t traditionally find a place in athletics. “It doesn’t matter what you look like, what sexuality you identify with. Forty-five percent of gamers are women. If you play the game and you perform, you are respected in eSports,” Drew said.
A good example is May Lombardi, a sophomore from Nashville. She doesn’t compete on the team, but serves as eSports operations coordinator … helping organize and manage the program with Coach Greer. “I did all the girlie things in elementary school like cheerleading and dance. But I lost that athleticism early and was kind of a nerd in middle school. When I got to high school, I really didn’t have a place. But once I discovered eSports I met a whole lot more people. I didn’t play, but started out managing teams and organizing tournaments,” she said.
May said she selected her dual major because she wants to go into tournament operations for eSports. “Any position that is sports-specific has an eSports equivalent; there are so many opportunities,” she stated. “Getting into this program at Lourdes has given me a place where I can grow as a person … where I can be myself.”