Whether it’s with a knockout finish at an EVO fighting game championship, a crushing play in League of Legends, or a dorm-wide Super Smash Bros. tourney, esports are taking the world by storm. Playboy’s Esports Highlights celebrate and chronicle their rise.
I love the Blizzard game Heroes of the Storm. But despite its growing popularity as an esport, I’d never cared much about the competitive scene. That all changed when I spotted my wife’s alma mater among the college teams on the bracket for Blizzard’s second annual “Heroes of the Dorm” tournament. I suddenly found myself tuning into broadcasts and cheering on my adopted team. I learned about popular strategies and costly mistakes. I watched scrappy underdogs win against all odds, while big favorites fell apart. I forged a love for insightful commentary, risky gameplay, and college rivalries. I became a fan.
Heroes of the Dorm is the first of its kind—a college esports competition broadcast live on ESPN2 and ESPN3. This year the tournament returned more popular than ever, and could be viewed on on Twitch, YouTube, ESPN2 and ESPNU. The Final Four and Grand Finale air today and tomorrow.
“Heroes of the Dorm is so cool because we’re from this culture that recognizes the growth of esports and how it provides a really positive form of entertainment,” says Adam Rosen, co-founder of college esports organization TESPA. “You tune into an average esports competition, you might not know who Evil Geniuses or Team Liquid are. You tune into ESPN and see Cal Berkeley vs Arizona State in the finals and you’re gonna have some affiliation with those schools.” Berkeley and Arizona were the final two teams from last year’s 64-team bracket.
Broadcasting on ESPN is a major step for esports’ mainstream recognition, and not without controversy. “A lot of people loved it,” Adam admits. “Some people embraced it. Some people said, ‘this isn’t sports.'” Gaming is still a young medium, and esports as a global phenomenon is still in its infancy. Seeing video games played competitively on live television is just too damn cool.
“I think it’s awesome we’re on ESPN,” says Heroes of the Dorm sportscaster and Blizzard community manager Tim “Trikslyr” Frazier. “The competitive drive seen in esports is very similar to that of which you would see in sports. The matches are just as fun to watch, and the storylines associated with the players can be quite the joy to follow.”
Esports has grown rapidly over the last several years. Millions of fans tune in to some form of competitive gaming, whether it’s Counter-Strike, League of Legends or Street Fighter. Mixing competitive gaming with the college scene was inevitable.
TESPA was founded by Adam and Tyler Rosen, twin brothers from the University of Texas. Now they work for the esports division within Blizzard—the game company behind Starcraft, Warcraft, Diablo, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and more. Tyler describes TESPA, which has more than 150 student-run chapters “that promote esports and gaming as a social activity on their own campus,” as the “ultimate college esports experience.”
TESPA’s organized competitions allow college campuses across North America to compete with one another using many of the most popular esports titles. “We do a lot of work to promote large-form tournaments,“ says Tyler. “Students can compete, play games, represent their universities, and have the opportunity to win real tuition money.” Having real money as a prize pool is an obvious incentive, but TESPA is quick to point out that it’s specifically tuition money that’s being rewarded. TESPA members are considered to be student athletes, and must retain their student eligibility and a certain GPA level in order to compete. Groups of passionate college students competing with each other to win free education is far more appealing to me than corporate-sponsored professionals.
Heroes of the Storm features 5v5 teams of diverse characters drawn from Blizzard’s other games, from the orcs in Warcraft to the demons of Diablo. With a strong emphasis on coordination and teamwork, this type of game—the MOBA or “hero brawler”—has become the flagship genre for this type of competitive gaming, and Heroes of the Dorm is TESPA’s marquee event. Prior to the bracket, TESPA hosted nearly 400 colleges across North America in online qualifiers. From that, a 64-team bracket was formed. Some schools, like Texas A&M and LSU, even had multiple teams make the bracket.
For fans and viewers Blizzard created a simple online form to fill out your own custom bracket. It was instantly familiar to anyone that’s participated in a March Madness bracket in their office. To encourage participation they offered monetary and in-game rewards from simply filling out a bracket to creating the perfect one. Each team had a brief but fun breakdown of important stats—number of kills, wins, average match length, etc. This helped a layman like me stumble through a bracket, even with no prior knowledge of the teams. Seeing recognizable colleges compete was far more compelling than random online groups.
A veteran of Heroes of the Storm, this is popular esports broadcaster and official Twitch.tv partner Jaycie “Gillyweed” Gluck’s first time joining the Heroes of the Dorm team. “Heroes of the Dorm does something that, to my knowledge, has never been done on this scale before,” remarks Gilly. “It bridges the gap between sports and esports by involving school rivalries and loyalties.”
Trikslyr adds that Heroes of the Dorm is a massive undertaking. “We started studying each team nearly three weeks in advance and created excel sheets, documents, and tons of hand written notes trying to detail out what makes each team tick. These players have been putting in massive amounts of work, and our goal was to give them the respect and recognition they deserve.”
Heroes of the Dorm has cultivated its own intriguing storylines. Two of the 64 teams were disqualified for account sharing (letting higher-rated players play on their accounts), for example, and the UConn team returned after being disqualified last year due to a hold on a student’s account—and has made it all the way to the Final Four.
The team from East Carolina quickly became a fan favorite after winning several matches thanks to some uniquely fun team compositions and underdog status. Their matches were exceptionally fun to watch. It was also nice to see an openly trans woman on the team with some of the most aggressive, exciting plays. In an age where gaming has become increasingly politically divisive and often downright hateful, it was great seeing inclusivity being championed alongside friendly competition.
Gilly adds, “Heroes of the Dorm is unique in that it’s mostly amateur teams competing. So a lot of the players are new and unknown, which created a different kind of challenge when preparing to commentate the teams.”
Campus-supported gaming organizations were definitely not a thing when I was in college a decade ago. Tyler confirms, “Five years ago a lot of universities really didn’t know what esports was. They didn’t know what gaming was, or why these groups existed. They’re beginning to embrace this really passionate, energetic group on their campus[es].”
It’s exciting to see schools like Arizona State celebrate their gaming team’s successes by using the #HeroesoftheDorm hashtag on their official athletics Twitter account. Baby steps like this (and big steps like ESPN broadcasts) help further introduce esports to a mainstream audience.
As someone who enjoys playing Heroes of the Storm but never cared much for watching it played competitively, Heroes of the Dorm definitely succeeded in drawing me into esports with Heroes of the Dorm. Now I’m looking forward to the finals this weekend—go UT Arlington!
Eric Watson is a freelance writer who enjoys talking about video games, movies, books and Dallas-based sports teams. Every week he watches a random film from his collection of several hundred DVDs and live tweets about it @RogueWatson. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas with his wife and daughter, two dogs, two cats, two fish tanks, some hermit crabs and a bookshelf full of Transformers.
RELATED: What’s harder: Dark Souls or Tinder Dating?