USC Sumter video gamers get varsity treatment

eSports team, in its 3rd year, still growing

University of South Carolina Sumter student Kadrin Pack focuses on the video game "Overwatch" during a practice session Thursday in the USC Sumter eSports Arena. Pack is a member of the college's eSports varsity team.
University of South Carolina Sumter student Kadrin Pack focuses on the video game "Overwatch" during a practice session Thursday in the USC Sumter eSports Arena. Pack is a member of the college's eSports varsity team.

It's the biggest sport you may have never heard of.

Colleges and universities across the U.S. have teams for the sport that is not played on a field or in a gym. Players don't even touch an actual ball or racket.

While most of the about 50 schools that participate have teams organized in unofficial clubs, University of South Carolina Sumter's varsity team was among one of the first groups to join what has become a digital craze.

Varsity eSports teams, or organized competitive video gaming, have coaches, recruit players, use a dedicated facility to play and practice in, are part of a national collegiate association, broadcast games and even offer scholarships to students.

Kris Weissmann, USC Sumter's team coach and eSports director, said the college has close to 30 students in the program who are on three teams that each compete in one game - video games called "League of Legends," "Overwatch" and "Hearthstone."

Students are called "gamers," and the program is housed under the Student Services umbrella at USC Sumter, not the Fire Ants Athletics Department.

USC Sumter has the only official varsity team in South Carolina, Weissmann said. Other schools, such as USC and Clemson, have club-level teams.

Although organized online and offline competitions have long been part of the video game culture, participation and spectatorship has surged in popularity just within the last decade, according to Weissmann.

Led by professional events with large prize pools in sports arenas that draw millions of online viewers, eSports has become an entertainment industry.

Most colleges were slow at first to meet demand for a collegiate version, but interest is growing as more schools see a chance to benefit from the industry's growth, according to The Associated Press.

Robert Morris University in Illinois launched the first college varsity eSports team in 2014.

Weissmann said USC Sumter and about 20 other schools across the U.S. jumped on board with teams in 2015, when the National Association of Collegiate eSports was created.

He said the college's dean, Michael Sonntag, thought an eSports varsity team could increase exposure for USC Sumter and expand activities available for students.

Other small colleges - both public and private - have shared a similar perspective, Weissmann said.

The varsity eSports program at USC Sumter has grown in each of its three years in both the number of students who participate and video games they compete in, Weissmann said. The college is looking to add its fourth and fifth games next year, he said.

The college streams portions of its competitions online and practices through a platform called Twitch, which Weissmann described as "YouTube strictly for gaming." Other USC Sumter students help promote the team and competitions on social media.

The college holds fundraisers to offer partial scholarships for the gamers, Weissmann said.

He said he doesn't get into the debate of whether eSports is a sport. He said he treats it like one - teams compete, and students must attend practices and maintain a certain GPA. The program benefits students similar to any other sport - gamers learn the value of teamwork, camaraderie and competition.

"It's just as competitive and just as viewed as other sports, so it's kind of hard not to consider it a sport," Weissmann said. "It just depends on what your definition on what a sport is."

He said eSports is even being considered for the Olympics.

The national collegiate association says interest is growing daily by colleges and universities.

Weissmann, 33, said he grew up playing video games and probably had every console - Nintendo, PlayStation, Xbox. He said he would have been "ecstatic" if an eSports program was available while he was in college.

He said the program meets the current generation of high schoolers where they're at and that it could entice kids to go to college.

"Some kids may never go to school, but if they see this they might change their mind," Weissmann said. "They might say, 'Hey, I can do that and get an education. Maybe make Mom and Dad happy because I am going to school and getting a degree, but I am also doing something I want to do.'"

USC Sumter student and eSports Team Captain Clark McDaniel said he has enjoyed the opportunity to compete on the team.

"Being able to play with other like-minded people in a game that I love to play has been fun," McDaniel said. "It's been a good outlet to meet other people."