BRISTOL, Tenn. — Oh, to be a kid again. Or at least in college for a semester or two.
This momentary desire to be a time traveler stemmed from an announcement by King University earlier this month. This 151-year-old institution will be the first school in Tennessee to offer e-sports as a varsity program.
E-sports will be King’s 26th varsity sport, and the university will join more than 70 institutions nationwide that offer scholarships for student-athletes to compete at the intercollegiate level.
“We’ve always tried to be on the cutting edge in college athletics, with sports like women’s wrestling, cycling, and acrobatics and tumbling,” Director of Athletics David Hicks said during a press conference earlier this month. “Our goal has always been to reach under-served populations and meet unmet demand, and e-sports is an obvious choice for our next varsity sport.”
In recent years, e-sports has developed into a multimillion-dollar industry, with the winning purse at last year’s “Dota 2” International Championships topping $24 million. Each of the five players on the winning team earned a prize of $2.16 million. In comparison, the 2017 Master’s champion, Sergio Garcia, took home $1.98 million.
I read a piece in Forbes this week where Tyler “Ninja” Blevins — one of the most well-known professional e-sports athletes — admitted to making $500,000 a month from his gaming career. Blevins recently livestreamed a “Fortnite” gaming session with music star Drake on Twitch.
Here are some more facts about e-sports:
— In the past three years, the “League of Legends” World Championships have drawn comparable numbers of online viewers to television viewership of the Master’s, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals and World Series.
— E-sports events have sold out Key Arena in Seattle, Nationwide Arena in Columbus, and Madison Square Garden.
— Earlier this spring, the Collegiate “Overwatch” Championships attracted 12,500 online viewers.
— Finally, e-sports is under consideration from the International Olympic Committee for inclusion in the 2024 Olympic Games.
In other words, e-sports is here to stay, and King University is at the forefront of the movement in our region.
“It’s an amazing thing and I think it accomplishes a lot,” King student Juan Somoza said. “It means a lot to me because I am a player of ‘League of Legends.’ I would want to be part of ‘League of Legends,’ as a lot of my friends want to be. We want to participate in an organized e-sports team, especially in ‘League of Legends.’ I’m glad that it came.”
In the same press conference, Hicks said e-sports would be a full varsity sport and receive the same support as any other sport at King, including basketball, tennis and soccer. E-sports will have a full schedule and have a practice and competition arena established.
King will initially compete in two games, “Overwatch” and “League of Legends.” The latter is the most popular competitive game in the United States, with more than 95 percent of intercollegiate programs sponsoring the game. “Overwatch comes in second at 74 percent.”
Both are multiplayer, online games where student-athletes work together to defeat the opposing team.
Hicks said King will begin recruiting immediately and will field its first teams during the 2018-19 academic year. A practice and competition arena will be constructed this summer in Bristol Hall. It will be equipped with specialized gaming rigs and accessories for the varsity program.
Micah Ridley, who played goalkeeper on the men’s soccer team at Milligan College, has been named head coach of e-sports at King. Ridley has experience as a coach at the collegiate and club level, along with experience in “League of Legends” and “Overwatch.”
“I’m excited that David has chosen me to launch the e-sports program at King and to have the first program in Tennessee,” said Ridley. “E-sports is thriving in the professional industry, and I believe growing the collegiate level seems to be a natural next step. We are providing student-athletes the opportunity to grow in their respective e-sport, while furthering their education.”