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SLU ESports looks to make its mark

Three years ago, Nicholas Chiu was a SLU freshman looking to help create a community around a passion of his where there was no formal one available. He and a small group of friends created an unofficial club at SLU centered around Video Games so that other wayward gamers would have a place to organize and team up.

Today, now a senior at Saint Louis University, Nicholas is the Director of E Sports, a full-time position managing the ins-and-outs of SLU’s newest varsity program and organization.

Competitive gaming is one of the fastest growing entertainment products in the world. While still in its infancy and having yet to catch on as a full time staple of pop culture, E Sports has made its statement to the world as viable and exciting for its young audience. With viewers numbering in the millions for its key events all over the world, and higher-end prize pools of similar numbers, it’s hard to deny the momentum and inevitability of E Sports as a significant player in the market.

With all that momentum, the idea of competition at the college level is only a short leap away from the professional ranks. SLU’s team joins 125 other college institutions that have introduced varsity programs that will look to compete in competition across a variety of platforms.

The time between Nicholas Chiu helping out with his dorm room club and leading SLU in joining the highest tier of gaming available for schools came on an accelerated timeline. After their first year as an unofficial organization on campus, they came back in year two and sought out official club status. Granting them access to SLU assets, like being able to book rooms on campus for events and better publicize their platform of community to the student body. The group went on to form an E Sport club team and began to contend in organized competition. Chiu was named director of that team at its inception.

In year three of the club, Chiu was approached by a board of trustees member about the prospect of taking the club to the next level. “That’s when things really took off.” Nicholas told me over a Google Hangout in early April, “We always tried to play competitive and have fun with stuff like that, but once the board started to come on, it kinda kicked into high gear.”

With the trustees on board and making a significant financial commitment including close to $25,000 in scholarships, and also the construction of a space that serves as a home base for the team that they affectionally call “The Lab.” SLU looks to make their name as a power in the E Sports world.

As program director, Nicholas’ job is much like that of the head coaches of any of SLU’s Athletics teams. He coaches players, instituting strategies for the games they play. He schedules tournament events and league series against other collegiate programs, in addition to training matches against pro, semi-pro, and high-end amateur teams. He organizes streams of the matches. He recruits new players to the program, scouring the video game scene for individuals interested in coming to SLU. And manages the day to day operation of SLU’s E Sports program including the intramural games the club organizes and other local events the club hosts out of “The Lab.”

As a senior, Chiu has been operating the organization while being a full-time student. Essentially working a full-time job as upon graduation, he will be promoted to a full-time employee at SLU. “I had to explain to my parents why this was a good thing. My plan for after graduation before this was to go to law school. But now that I have a job in the university that opens up possibilities for my education that make that plan far more possible.” Nicholas explains, “But it took a while to explain that to my parents.”  

Before becoming Program Director of the E Sports Team, Chiu has made himself known in the STL gaming community not only through the club team but also as an event promoter for gaming all over the city and, indeed, the region. With his background coming as a player of Nintendo’s mega-hit Super Smash Bros., Nicholas independently became one of the Midwest’s foremost organizers of “Smash” events and earned the praise of the community as being the prominent E Sports promoter in the greater STL area.  

At present, the roster consists of thirteen scholarship players and one “walk-on.” Six of those students focus on the Riot Game’s title ‘League of Legends’, and the other Seven play Blizzard Entertainments’ Overwatch.’ League of Legends (which is colloquially referred to as ‘League’ or ‘LoL’) is the most popular and competitive E Sport games in the world, whereas Overwatch is newer to the scene but has quickly cemented itself as a top tier title in the competitive scene.

The requirements to be a player on the Esports team at SLU are much like that of being on any of SLU’s athletics teams. You must be a full-time student of the institution, and you must remain academically eligible. While the standard set for academics is internally determined and not established by an organizing body, Chiu wants his team operating much like any NCAA team would.

“Normally, we practice for two hours a day every weekday and then play matches over the weekends.” Chiu explains, “One thing I had to explain to the board when we were working on the creation of the team was the idea of addiction. In my experience with guys who play at the higher levels as we do, because we practice so much and so intensely, often times when these guys are done practicing, they really want to go do other stuff.”

As a team, they do have a little bit of flexibility to their roster that traditional sports do not. Their players are not bound by age or years of eligibility. They can also have a degree of remoteness to their roster, with at least one player this season/year residing in Chicago while finishing an internship as a graduate school student.  

The future of E Sports at the collegiate level is still very much in flux. It seems as though this is the next phase of growth for the E Sports world, but for an industry very much in its own growth, it’s hard to tell where the lower tiers of that industry are going.

Presently there isn’t an NCAA of competitive video games, and the NCAA isn’t interested in governing E Sports as of May of 2019 when the NCAA Board of Governors voted not to sponsor such competition.

Teams like SLU are left to their own devices to create their own schedules and competitions, looking to corporately sponsored leagues and tournaments like TESPA, CLOL, the GG Leagues or even ESPN. Without a definitive structure like the conference created in the NCAA, programs have to be more creative in finding opponents.

The strength of opponents also does not follow the typical structure of NCAA sports. Neighboring schools like Fontbonne and Maryville have built themselves up to be significant players on the national scene. Maryville even climbing so high as to have an Overwatch team that needed to shed the collegiate title and enter the professional ranks to continue competing at a challenging level.  

“With so many teams being so young and just starting up, it really is just the roll of the dice as to how good you are in the beginning.” Nicholas Chiu explains. Essentially saying that if a member of your student body is already a high-level player in their own right, your program has a major advantage. “We are just as likely to find high-level teams at tiny community colleges, as we are schools with traditional powerful sports programs.”

SLU itself is in an excellent position to compete moving forward. While the Overwatch season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, SLU has proven their might as a top 30 team in collegiate League of Legends. The long-term goal of the team from a gameplay perspective is to sit in the top ten nationally, and consistently, in both games. A goal Chiu feels is realistic given the support from SLU and the team they have assembled now, believing new support and success will pave the way for long term achievement.

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E Sports is here to stay. The numbers in terms of viewership and revenue, prove it. Just last April, SLU saw how legitimate competitive gaming could be as a spectator sport. When Chaifetz Arena was sold out for the 2019 LCS Spring Finals, one of the marquee events on the League of Legends professional tour.

It’s unclear as to what collegiate E Sports will look like in five years, let alone what it will look like next year. But SLU is at the forefront of the next generation of competition and will be a part of defining that future in a significant way.

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