Athletes in the Digital Arena

The world of Esports at Lees-McRae

It’s hard to believe, but in this past year alone the League of Legends Esports World Championships gathered a concurrent viewer peak of 44 million people, reaching 99.6 million unique viewers over the course of the event.

For context, this reached nearly the same views as the 2018 Super Bowl at 103.4 million. Or for non-sports fans, roughly a third of the U.S. population (sitting slightly above 300 million people).

While the world of Esports may be steadily gaining popularity across the world, much of it is still quite the mystery.

However, 25 students with the guidance of Dr. Lonni Wilson, head Esports coach and program coordinator of Sport Management, are looking to demystify what it means to be involved in Esports and what an opportunity to compete in the digital arena can offer degree-seeking students.

What began as a club sport housed within Student Affairs almost six years ago has now developed into a varsity sport with a designated practice and competition room in the Bowman Building. The team competes anywhere from five to upwards of fifteen times in a year against universities across the U.S. including the University of Alabama and Liberty University.

Athletes play in a variety of games including the aforementioned League of Legends, Overwatch, Rainbow Six Seige, Hearthstone, Fortnite, and Rocket League, among others. Each multiplayer game typically requires three or more players competing concurrently to form a team.

The Esports room itself features several computers designed and built for online gaming. Armed with a more robust graphics card supported by a heavy-hitting storage system, plus some cool fiber optics for good measure—think of these as the Lamborghinis of the computer world.

While their computers might set them apart from what most would traditionally consider a “sport,” much of what Esports athletes do on a day-to-day basis to prepare for competition is quite similar.

“Most of them are competing on multi-player games that require several team members working together in a coordinated effort to defeat an opponent, typically another college or university team,” Wilson said.

Athlete and team captain Brock Penrod ’20, who transferred to Lees-McRae partially because of its Esports team, says that he and his teammates practice, work on drills, and evaluate their past performances just like any other athletics team would—but with an interesting twist.

League of Legends—being one of the most popular games of all time—offers much for new or developing athletes to learn from.

“We have a lot of material to work off of,” Penrod said. “Videos to study, streams to watch…but we can also re-watch our own stream back after a match, and we can even watch the other team’s stream offering a new point of view.”



For any aspiring athlete, rising to the professional ranks is a dream, but for Esport athletes looking to compete professionally, it’s essential that they have experience in team play versus solo play.

“All the professionals play in team play,” Penrod explained.

Which is exactly what Esport student-athletes are doing nearly every night after classes, homework, and in some cases, other athletic endeavors—upwards of 10 hours a day between class and other commitments.

In team play, you learn how to communicate with your teammates, practice game-specific mechanics, and above all, strategize.

While this might all sound straightforward, “a lot of people are trying to figure out what Esports is all about and whether or not it should be called a sport at all,” Wilson said. “Yet, you have hundreds, if not thousands, of colleges fielding teams across the world. So there is a lot of opportunity for those in high school saying ‘Hey, I like to do this, but how do I keep doing it?’”

Though universities and colleges around the U.S. are fielding teams left and right, most are not developing them quite like Lees-McRae. Most teams will remain on a club level with little to no financial support, but Lees-McRae, with the team rising to varsity level, offers scholarships for many of its team members.

“[At Lees-McRae] we do a good job of balancing the experience of the college student, between earning your degree along with competing in your sport,” Wilson said. “That’s important, because at the end of the day, we are still issuing a college degree to students who come and game with us. Preparing students to work in their chosen industry while pursuing their passion for gaming is really what sets us apart from other colleges.”

Learn more about Esports at Lees-McRae here

By Nina MastandreaNovember 22, 2019
Campus LifeAthleticsFamilies