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'This is not going away': Minnesota State Moorhead hosts tournament in growing world of esports

University of Jamestown’s Josh Knutson coaches during their Overwatch match with St. Ambrose in the Rift North Collegiate eSports Tournament on Saturday, April 6, at Minnesota State Moorhead. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor 1 / 2
University of Minnesota's Tommy Wu, left, competes in an Overwatch match during the Rift North Collegiate eSports Tournament on Saturday, April 6, at Minnesota State Moorhead. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor 2 / 2

MOORHEAD, Minn. — Minnesota State Moorhead athletic director Doug Peters was in Alex Nemzek Fieldhouse, taking in a heated competition between two area colleges.

Peters watched the drama unfold on one of the large video boards. The underdog emerged victorious.

“There was an upset (Friday) night, and you could tell,” Peters said.

While Peters has seen surprise outcomes before in Alex Nemzek, this was different. Keyboards, mouses and monitors were to tools that helped engineer the upset.

MSUM hosted the Rift of the North Collegiate Esports Tournament, which concluded Saturday, April 6.

Nine schools competed in the event, including the University of Jamestown, Valley City State, North Dakota State, the University of North Dakota and MSUM.

Varsity esports is growing on college campuses around the country. The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) has more than 140 schools. The University of Jamestown is part of NACE and is officially endorsed by the school’s athletic department.

“This is not going away,” said Teddy Delaney, an eSports head coach at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa. “This is only going to get bigger.”

“League of Legends” and “Overwatch” were the two games played this weekend at Nemzek. The 28-year-old Delaney was a shoutcaster (commentator) for the "Overwatch" games. Game play was shown on large television monitors or video boards for spectators.

“I kind of outline every play,” Delaney said.

Josh Knutson is the head coach for the University of Jamestown for an esports program that is in its second season. The Jimmies had teams compete in both the “League of Legends” and “Overwatch” tournaments at Rift of the North. Jamestown has around 20 gamers on its roster.

“You get a lot of people who think it’s just a group of people sitting in a basement somewhere playing video games,” Knutson said. “In reality, it functions a lot like a basketball team or a football team.”

Teams of six are needed for “Overwatch” and teams of five are used for "League of Legends." “Overwatch” was a best-of-five format, while “League of Legends” was a best-of-three format at Rift of the North. Knutson said those head-to-head series can last as long as 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Alex Huff plays “Overwatch” for the Jimmies. From Cleveland, N.D., Huff has been a competitive athlete in more traditional sports like football, cross country and basketball. The University of Jamestown junior said the team aspect of esports games and the head-to-head aspect give organized gaming the same feel as some traditional sports.

“It involves very specific coordination and teamwork,” Huff said.

Knutson said the Jimmies esports team practices five times a week, including film review, putting together game plans for opponents and preventative stretching. The team practices and competes throughout the school year.

“We are putting in the same amount of time as a student-athlete,” Knutson said. “We have the same standards. … The stereotype of a gamer is sitting in mom’s basement eating Cheetos and drinking Mountain Dew. That’s not what it’s like.”

Delaney said there are “hundreds and hundreds” of gaming clubs at colleges around the country to go with the 141 teams associated with NACE. Peters said MSUM has two gaming clubs that involve more than 120 students.

Peters said hosting Rift of the North was a way for him to see organized gaming up close and gauge if it’s something MSUM would want to add to its athletic department in the future.

“It’s something worth looking into,” Peters said. “It’s been on our radar screen.”

Peters said Concordia-St. Paul and Upper Iowa are the two Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference members that field varsity esports teams.

MSUM partnered with Moorhead-based Gravity Gaming by ByteSpeed for this weekend’s esports event. Anna Hanson, a sales director for Gravity Gaming, said esports is growing at both the high school and college level. Hanson said 12 states currently sanction organized gaming and added that's projected to grow to 35 by the end of the year.

Hanson said there’s mixed debate whether esports teams should fit into athletic departments or under student life on college campuses. She thinks it fits well in athletic departments.

“It’s a team sport and everybody has their place to play,” Hanson said. “There’s a lot of that competitive team nature that you see in competitive sports.

"Athletics provides such a beautiful structure. They know how to run events. They know how to run a team sport. They know how to make it a sport and the athletic atmosphere that comes with that is compelling.”

In January, NCAA President Mark Emmert voiced his concerns about esports at the college level.

"We know a lot of the content is hugely misogynistic," said Emmert, according to the Associated Press. "We know that some of the content is really violent. We don't particularly embrace games where the objective is to blow your opponent's head off. We know there are serious concerns about health and wellness around those games."

Knutson doesn't agree with Emmert's take. Delaney said the video games his teams play for competition are first approved by the school's administration.

"We're playing in a controlled environment," Knutson said. "It's the negative thing that gets brought up when people don't understand what this is all about. It's so much more than this old misconception."

Eric Peterson
Peterson covers college athletics for The Forum, including Concordia College and Minnesota State Moorhead. He also covers the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks independent baseball team and helps out with North Dakota State football coverage. Peterson has been working at the newspaper since 1996.

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