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Regaining A Sense Of Community Through Gaming: An Interview With Columbia eSports

COVID-19 has robbed students of most University sporting events this fall, but there’s one campus sport that students can enjoy watching live. Staff Writer (and former PUBG/DOTA2 player) Lia Jung brings you the scoop on Columbia’s eSports club.

Several months before the start of the term, Ivy League announced that all intercollegiate athletics competitions have been suspended for the Fall semester due to the ongoing pandemic. The decision has left a gaping hole in Columbia’s undergraduate life, as some of the campus’ most beloved and anticipated events have been effectively removed from the university calendar.

Since the announcement, students have gone out to look for alternative ways to quench their thirst for competitive action- one of the more popular forms of entertainment that have recently arrested students’ attention is online gaming. (Just think of the number of times you have heard someone mention Among Us these past few weeks)

This week, Bwog has reached out to the board of Columbia eSports to ask some questions about playing video games and competing in collegiate eSports during the pandemic, and on the eSports club’s potential to fulfill the hole left by the absence of the college’s athletic events.

Columbia eSports club had been in operation since 2013, and their Facebook page opened in the following year on 2014: since then, the club has gained more than 650 members on their Discord group chat.

Q: Tell us a bit about yourselves (name/major/school/graduation date), and the name of the first video game you ever played, if you can remember:

A: Alexi Monovoukas, Biology major, CC, ‘22. First game I ever played was something on Miniclip, but Minecraft was the first game I truly fell in love with.

Sebastian Rossi, Physics and CS-Math, CC, ‘23, Halo: Combat Evolved 

Kiran Gauthier, doctoral candidate in Chemical Engineering, SEAS, ‘22, Bomberman with my little brother :)

Leonardo Arvan, Electrical Engineering major with a Computer Science minor, SEAS 23’, Spyro the Dragon PS1.

Matthew Wang, CS major, CC ‘22. First game was Putt-Putt or Webkinz, with my first large multiplayer game being Wizard 101.

Q: Give us a brief overview of the club’s mission: what sort of platform are you currently providing for our student gamers?

A: As a club, we offer support for, and manage, a number of eSport teams. We also act as the center/hub of the general gaming community at Columbia. Despite what the name implies, we have more members who are casual players rather than those dedicated to competitive eSports. So perhaps “Video Game Club” might be a more fitting name.

Q: Which games are being played competitively at the moment, and how are you operating these separate leagues?

A: Currently we have competitive teams playing League of Legends, Overwatch, Rocket League, Valorant, Hearthstone, and CS:GO. We also have a strong interest in banding competitive players who can play Dota 2, AoE, Hearthstone, and Starcraft II. Our club is continually growing, especially due to the semester being online.

We register our teams to a number of different competitive, intercollegiate leagues, run by either third party organizations or more prestigious organizations backed by large gaming companies (such as Tespa or CLoL). 

Q: Speaking of, is it true that you need to maintain a certain GPA to apply for varsity-level tournaments like Tespa?

A: Both Tespa and CSL have GPA requirements. For example, for CSL you have at least a 2.0 GPA, and be a full-time student, taking 9 credit hours. These leagues do check to not only make sure that you are a student, but also to make sure that you are doing well in class.

Q: Are there any monumental achievements or significant changes for the 20/21 Season you’d like to mention?

A: Just recently, we placed 2nd in the League of Legends IvyLeague+ charity tournament, which reunited all the Ivy League, MIT, and Stanford universities to raise money for the WHO COVID-19 Solidarity Fund. Columbia was the highest donating school with $6,000+, and the tournament overall raised over $16,000 in donations. We are looking to repeat this style of event this upcoming year with an emphasis on building a community for eSports in the Ivy League and further expanding to larger intercollegiate tournaments. Aside from that, we’ve also made a deep run into Blizzard’s official Collegiate Overwatch League and are currently undefeated in Hearthstone.

We also started picking up Steam this past academic year, which is exciting.

Q: If we were to compare eSports to traditional sports, how many parallelisms could you draw? Are there any significant differences? 

A: In truth, I think the only major difference between traditional sports and eSports is the physicality of it. eSport teams that want to succeed have to be a tight-knit, coordinated group. At the highest level, there is no difference in the intensity in an NFL team and an eSports team–both need to be extremely connected with each other, and both need incredible teamwork to win.

Continuing with the NFL parallel, in the same way quarterbacks practice their shots, eSport players train their reflexes, muscle memory, and consistency through the same repetitive practice. Game tapes in eSports are called VODs, which serve to analyze your or an enemy team’s performances, understand the pros and cons of their strategy, and capitalize on potential strategic gaps.

We think the most important difference is that there are no innate advantages offered in eSports: if you’re 6’8”, 350 pounds of raw muscle you’ll probably fare better than some less physically dominant opponents in the NFL, but in our world, every character has the same abilities and base traits regardless of skill level. We watch the pro gamers who use the exact same heroes as us, which makes it fascinating to see how they can push them to the absolute boundaries of performance. This is probably what makes eSports so appealing to such a broad audience because you’re ultimately the one who calls the shots and decides the impact of your character- the game applies no bias.

Q: Could you give us a beginner’s guide to Columbia eSports’ recruitment process, by explaining to us what try-outs look like, and what you look for in a player?

A: We send out an announcement through our discord channel to our members asking if there’s interest for a team in a certain game. If enough people are interested, we find a time that works for everyone and hold “tryouts,” which is just a very preliminary gauge of skill. After forming a team, we find some time for everyone to introduce each other and get to know their potential teammates. 

In terms of the tryouts themselves, we normally set a baseline using an individual’s “rank,” which is a rating generated in the game itself based on their performance playing online. This allows us to filter out players that have proven results which makes scouting for talent easier.  After that, selection for a team is generally based on a combination of communication skills, mechanical ability, and decision making, although the specifics depend on the game in question. And of course, a major factor that we consider is the player’s own interest for the game, since, in the end, these teams depend on a sense of community and trust between the players, which stems from the individual player’s dedication to improving as a group.

Q: What does it mean to play as a team in the gaming world? What defines a good gaming community? 

A: Playing as a team is all about coordination and communication, similar to traditional sports. A good eSports team shares similar traits with a good gaming community, which is one that fosters a friendly and respectful atmosphere. That respect carries a long way and eventually builds the trust needed between teammates to push the boundaries of what is possible in any given engagement.

Q: A follow-up question: what are the current challenges for teams who are training during the pandemic? Or can we assume that because of the virtual aspect of eSports, the impact of the pandemic has been minimal?

A: It is fair to say that the impact of the pandemic has been less on eSports compared to traditional sports. Nevertheless, the fact that a number of our members are in different countries often leads to insurmountable barriers in terms of playing online- for instance, if one of our players is trying to connect from Asia, they will be less likely to find time to practice with us, which gives them a disadvantage in competing for this season. Furthermore, the pandemic has made it impossible for us to meet and spend time with our teammates in person, which severely limits the growth of the community, as well as team bonding, which is an important part of every sporting team. With that said, our administrative board is ready to do whatever we can to foster team and community growth- we know especially now how important it is to vent or just enjoy games with friends at the end of a long day. 

Q: One of the reasons why eSports may seem like an alien subject to students is due to the fact that they regard video games as something that’s very exclusive, and feel that they don’t know enough about it to be able to appreciate the tournaments. Do you agree with this?

A: Definitely not. While a background knowledge of eSports and the game aids in being engaged with a match, much like in real sports, understanding the gameplay and decision making of each player is not always what makes the experience of spectating eSports exciting.

Much of the fun in watching eSports, particularly when it comes to the most popular leagues such as the Overwatch League, CS:GO Major Championships and League of Legends’ regional competitions comes from following one’s favorite team or player and becoming invested in their success. The team’s history and rivalries that extend beyond the tournament itself also adds to the intrigue for fans, much like in regular sports.

Q: Has there been a recent change in how eSports are being perceived by the broader Columbia community since the pandemic? How would you expect eSports to fill the void left by the cancellation of sporting events for our students? 

A: Rather than a change in perception, we would describe it as an increase in awareness and appreciation for gaming in general. With this increase in appreciation for casual gaming comes, of course, an increase in interest for collegiate eSports. We believe that there’s a large population of students that would enjoy competing or playing casually for the school but because we are entirely student-run, it’s difficult to reach that critical point of self-sustainment. With that in mind, the board this year is trying to communicate and advertise Columbia eSports’ community to a much larger section of the student body in hopes of recruiting more like-minded Columbians. 

Ideally, we would love to step into the role of content creators for Columbia in the Fall 2020 semester by hosting tournaments or broadcasting competitive games while also providing a space for group meetings or casual cooldowns in Minecraft, Fall Guys, or other similar games. 

Q: What are your long term aspirations in eSports? What would you hope to see happen for your organization in the following years at Columbia?

A: Our biggest goal is to continue to foster the gaming community at Columbia, though we do look forward to participating in an eSports Ivy League group, which was started off by Yale’s eSports club and us a couple of months ago!  We are also looking into creating a varsity team for eSports at Columbia, so we can officially represent them at all the leagues and tournaments we participate in. We would love to see Columbia be represented on a national level in some of the most popular games that we play.

Q: Lastly, if someone asked for advice on setting up a relatively affordable gaming pc at an entry-level, what tips or recommendations would you give them?

A. Well, building a PC is almost always the cheapest way to go, especially for gaming. You can also tailor your PC build to the type of game that you want to play. However, it does take a lot more time and effort to learn how to build a PC, but as long as you follow the youtube videos out there, building a desktop isn’t too hard. Websites like pcpartpicker.com can really help you when building a PC, as they help list out PC parts and their price tags from various websites and stores.

In terms of gear, it really depends on what kind of game you are playing. If you are playing a game like League of Legends, getting a good monitor is not that challenging. However, when playing faster-paced FPS games, it’s immensely helpful to get a proper gaming mouse and a high refresh rate monitor – specifically 144 Hz or above. You will also need a PC build that is powerful enough to not only run the games but also be able to keep up with your monitor refresh rate.

gaming via Flickr

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