With COVID-19 halting most sporting events at Franklin College during 2020, Franklin began to look for ways to fill the void and continue to hold athletic competition. The answer was esports.
Esports, or competitive gaming, is growing rapidly. Viewership increased 11.4% this year, with an estimated 26.6 million monthly viewers. The number of fans is expected to reach 31.4 million by 2023. Where there are fans, there will be money. In 2018, investors dropped $4.5 billion on esports: That was up 837% from 2017’s $490 million. It’s net worth has since remained over $1 billion.
Where there is a platform, there will be players. This fall, Franklin College joined the growing number of colleges that offer a school-sponsored esports team. The college hired Coach Todd Burris after he noticed the job opportunity by chance.
“I happened to glance at Franklin College’s website...and I saw the esports ad come up,” Burris said. “I decided to send a letter over and they shot me an email that afternoon.”
Burris has a passion for video games. He attended the 1990 Nintendo World Championships and owns the rarest Game & Watch, Spitball Sparky, a Virtual Boy console complete in box, an Atari 2600 and a Magnavox Odyssey. Burris thinks his passion for gaming makes his job more enjoyable.
“I’m not here for the financial side of it,” Burris said. “I’m here because I’m passionate about where I live in Franklin, I’m passionate about gaming, and I’m passionate about helping the next generation.”
Not only is Burris a passionate gamer, he is also an athlete. He played tennis for St. Joseph’s College and later competed in track and field at Indiana State University. He also officiates for IHSAA basketball games.
“I think it brings credibility. They don’t see me as a computer or IT guy, they see me as somebody who understands athletics. I think that’s very important,” Burris said.
The team currently only competes in Rocket League due to arena construction taking longer than anticipated. League of Legends and Call of Duty missed the start of the season and will start next semester. There are also plans for Overwatch, Fortnite and CSGO teams, but these programs need more players before their launch. In the future, Burris would like to venture into the sports realm.
“I would like to see some of the one versus one titles like FIFA and Madden, some of those that are going to be around forever,” Burris said.
Junior Abigale Strader is waiting for more players. She is helping to create the Overwatch team, but they only have two members so far. She is one of the top 500 Overwatch players in the U.S. and was once ranked 89th during the summer of 2018.
“I just got it by playing. I just kept trying to improve my gameplay and looking back at past games,” Strader said.
Strader has always loved competition. She was an avid softball player, but health constraints forced her to quit. To fill her time, she picked up competitive gaming. When she heard Franklin College was starting an esports team last year, she knew she wanted to join. Now, with her senior year approaching, she is running out of time, but she said she has confidence that it will happen.
“Todd and I are heavily recruiting for next year. That’s kind of our main goal right now is to get this Overwatch program up and running, and we’re doing everything we can to get there,” Strader said. “I’m just glad to be involved and to be able to say that I helped the program move forward.”
A big part of an esports team is having a physical space to play. Luckily for the players, the arena was completed over fall break. It’s housed in the Spurlock Center in what used to be a racket ball court. It consists of 12 gaming computers and TVs on all sides of the room for quick reference to the team maps.
Building the arena took over a year. Due to supply chain shortages, the team was forced to play in the Hamilton Library until the official space was ready. Junior Rocket League team captain Collin Barton said they had to be flexible. The library space they used could fit only three computers and three players. But they competed against Kansas State anyway.
“It was really intense,” Barton said. “Those guys were a few ranks higher than us… We were all kind of shaky.”
According to Burris, these players take these games very seriously. He said esports is just as much a sport as football or basketball.
“These kids are athletes, they just train in a different way,” Burris said. “The reaction time and the decisions that these student athletes have to make in their esports world is no different than a quarterback dropping back and having to go through his progression of reads.”
Sophomore Antonio Ferree, a member of the Call of Duty team, said that esports is also different from casual gameplay because strategy becomes more important.
“During competitive play you normally have a set position you play,” Ferree said. “Just casually playing, everyone’s just running about going wherever.”
Freshman League of Legends captain Taylor Campos believes casual gaming is less structured because those who play for fun usually focus on themselves. In esports, it's all about the team.
“There’s a lot of sacrifice,” Campos said. “You have to really think of those sacrifices like a chess game. We might lose something, but it’s better overall.”
With sacrifice comes growth and improvement. Burris expects the team to continue to grow and improve in the coming years and has several goals he wants to reach. He wants a strong image for the team, as well as fundraisers for the program. He also wants students to come to Franklin because of its esports program.
“Number one is to drive student enrollment. That’s what the program is here for so that’s one of my long term goals,” Burris said.
Students will only be attracted to the program if it establishes a name for itself. One step to gaining that name is by winning. They just recently won their first game in a Rocket League match against Independence Community College. Even though the team is brand new and untested, players are confident that the team will recruit talent.
“It’ll be a huge thing,” Campos said. “I’m excited to see it embraced. I’ve seen high schools start doing it, and I think 10 years from now most colleges and high schools will have their own esports teams.”