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Not Your Grandpa's Co-op

How gaming culture is taking over Tech

Photographs by Micheal Meador and Vini Rios
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In July 2019, more than two million people watched an intense battle play out on their screens as Kyle Giersdorf made gaming history at the Fornite World Cup. The video game drops players into an epic battle as the game’s environment forces them closer to one another. Giersdorf made it to #5 in that final round, racking up enough overall points to land first place in the Cup. Standing in a stadium with announcers and fans screaming, confetti raining down on him, the 16-year-old known as “Bugha” took home a $3 million payout.

Yep. That’s million with a capital M. Three million dollars for playing a video game.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Giersdorf spent a lot of time developing his skills in the game. You need quick reflexes to play a game like Fornite. You need to manage inventory and use what materials you find around you to succeed. Then there’s the real-time structure building and combat strategy. It’s chaotic to look upon, this game. But when it gets going, there’s a symphony of skill playing beneath all the frantic running and gunning.

Stories of teenagers standing victorious in coliseums as millions look on aren’t the norm. But gaming is. The industry commands $67 billion in revenue in the United States, and Nielsen data reports that 64% of the country’s population are gamers. Those numbers account for mobile games, too. You still playing Candy Crush? At 270 million players in 2019, the odds are pretty good.

The story is that gaming is everywhere – especially on campus.

Gaming Bears
Gaming culture at WVU Tech has exploded in the last five years. Campus is a far cry from the days of students gathering in the residence halls to play FIFA or Mario Kart. That’s still a thing these days, but now a student can pop into a casual game session, spend all weekend clicking away at a LAN party or join a competitive tournament.
A graphic showing titles for Kat Brown.
Kat Brown is a senior forensic investigation major from Beckley. She’s also the president of Gaming at Tech.

“The gaming community at Tech is amazingly inclusive, intelligent and caring, not to mention that it’s growing substantially,” she said.

Her love for the game goes beyond playing. She says she’s in it for the community. And it’s a community that has been more welcoming than she could have imagined.

“When I joined, I really thought it was all about the games. The more you get to know the members, it becomes clear that when push comes to shove, they rally around you when you need it,” she said. “The people in this organization have helped me out of my toughest spots, and it’s comforting to know they’re always there for me and always there for anyone that comes into the organization.”

Gaming at Tech has been a bastion for casual gaming where players of all skill levels can play their preferred games at ease. “This can be video games or card and board games,” said Kat. “It’s just any game that the host for that week brings.”
We see a computer screen lighting up the darkness, a gamer staring intently as she destroys her digital enemies.
Saturdays take a darker tone when the group hosts a scary game night. The evening’s games focus on the zombie and monster-infested horror genre. On Sundays, the group picks up a long-running role-playing game where they left off the week before. 

Students aren’t required to be a member of Gaming at Tech to take part. Kat says gaming nights draw students from all types of backgrounds and majors, including those who have an interest in how a game works. Casual gamers. Computer science students interested in software. Psychology majors who want to know how their opponents think. It’s a melting pot.

That includes Alex Ouimet, a senior information systems major from Charles Town, West Virginia. He’s a regular at game nights. He’s president of the student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery. The group concerns itself with the backend of gaming. They’re interested in the construction of consoles and computers, networking, coding and software development.

“To put things plainly, we’re just a bunch of nerds who like messing with computers,” Alex joked.

But the group is much more. Members take part in community activities that help younger students get acquainted with computer technology. One of those events, Discover Engineering Day at the Clay Center, puts them in front of hundreds of K-12 kids.
A gamercard featuring Alex Ouimet.

“Outside of Engineering Day, we help send teams to the International Collegiate Programming Contest. The ICPC is an international competition where teams of three spend a day trying to solve programming problems,” he said. “We also help maintain the servers and proctor the high school and Tech student programming competitions hosted by WVU Tech’s computer science department.”

It makes sense that the group would have the chops to put together a major-scale gaming event. TechLAN started a few years ago and has become a premier campus gaming event. The LAN party attracts dozens of players who bring their gear, get established on the local network and play their hearts out. This year, TechLAN will be a two-day affair.

“It has become a tradition for our ACM Chapter to host this event every semester, but personally I like hosting TechLAN because it allows me to see everyone having fun and enjoying themselves despite the stress that college brings,” said Alex. “I think many would agree that there is no better way to unwind and forget your responsibilities than playing games with an auditorium full of people, even if it’s only for a day. This event helps to strengthen Tech’s gaming community by providing a time and place for the community to play together.”

Buffed, ready to roll and going pro
Under the ocean of casual gaming opportunities on campus runs a competitive current. There’s been a spike in interest in competitive esports. The arena requires more time and practice to master, but the rewards can be incredible. Competitive players can earn money and prestige like 16-year-old Bugha. At the college level, they can go up against other schools for everything from prize money to gaming scholarships.

Dr. J.T. Hird is a mathematics professor at WVU Tech. He’s a gamer and the faculty advisor for Gaming at Tech. He’s also a co-coach for the new WVU Tech esports team, which is currently in development.

A gamercard depicting JT Hird.
“In recent years there’s been a fundamental shift in how people enjoy video games. In addition to playing games, there are more and more people who tune into sites like YouTube and Twitch to watch their favorite players and content creators,” he said. 

“This rise in viewership has increased the popularity and success of professional esports, which in turn leads students to want to experience this kind of competition at the college level.”

So many collegiate esports teams cropped up in the last half-decade that the competition needed some structure. The National Association of Collegiate eSports formed to establish the underlying rules for eligibility, competitions and scholarships. To date, there are more than 130 member institutions, and ESPN even keeps a running list of varsity teams.

WVU Tech is fielding a team that it hopes will soon be on that list. It’s already taking off.

“The esports team consists of more than 30 students competing across seven games,” said Dr. Hird, who said the team will function as an athletic program. 

“It’s probably most similar to track and field since some athletes compete in multiple events but are still considered part of a single team.”
The dedicated esports room is awesome, with mood lighting, a giant bear graphic on the wall, gaming chairs, and state-of-the-art gaming Pcs.
Students are already practicing and have established sub-teams for Super Smash Bros Ultimate, Fortnite, League of Legends, Rainbow Six: Seige, Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Rocket League. Once the team is competing, he says they plan to livestream their competitions on the popular gaming streaming service, Twitch.

With Facilities Management and Information Technology support, the University retrofitted a classroom into a dedicated esports facility. It’s complete with gaming chairs, state-of-the-art gaming rigs and an athletic-inspired paint job.

For Jordan Brown, a sophomore criminal justice major from Colcord, West Virginia, that’s welcome news. Jordan is the new Competitive Coordinator of ESports in Gaming at Tech.

"My job is to help find competitive games that are currently being played by other colleges and encourage members to form a team for said game. Alongside helping out with collegiate esports teams, I also help create new ideas for the competitive scene and introduce them to the club,” he said.

He knows that the rise of esports has energized students. He says competitive gaming is so ubiquitous for that students watch their heroes – like famous athletes – play online.

“The fact that a 16-year-old won $3 million by playing games is definitely going to turn the heads of the media, so much so that sooner or later esports will be sitting right next to the NBA, NFL and MLB in terms of competitive sports around the world,” he said.
A gamercard depicting Jordan Brown.
And it all starts with taking that leap. 

Jordan says many casual gamers on campus have no idea how good they could be in the competitive environment because they haven’t tried. He was a self-described casual gamer for years. Then he joined the gaming club and found his way onto the school’s Super Smash Brothers team.

“I practiced and participated in as many tournaments as I could to improve myself and so I could feel confident enough to join the current Smash team. I still have a lot more room to improve, but I am now within the ranks with some of our best Smash players,” he said.

He plans on putting his skills to work on the new esports team.

“Do not ever sell yourself short, especially if you have not even tried with everything you’ve got. You could be the best of the best, but you will never know until you take that chance.”

Console to classroom, PC to practical
Some folks might decry the prevalence of collegiate gaming culture as a waste of a student’s time and energy. After all,shouldn’t they be studying?

Yes, they should. But naysayers might pump the brakes on condemning gamers as time-wasters. Studies have shown that video games offer cognitive benefits to players.

“Students develop their ability to work as a team, they learn to communicate effectively, they practice strategy and they develop their hand-to-eye coordination,” said Dr. Hird.

These are no small skills. They’re traits the professor says can help in the workforce. Gaming boosts coordination, multi-tasking, memory and problem-solving skills. Played online, games help students hone their social skills. A 2017 study from the University of Glasgow discovered improved resourcefulness, adaptability and communication skills in subjects who played just 14 hours of video games. A research review in American Psychologist found that gaming develops spatial navigation skills, reasoning and perception. 
Gamers, mashing their controllers, intently watch the action off-screen.
It also suggested that gaming helps to ward off anxiety. College students are no stranger to that.

“Students join clubs, groups and sports to help them loosen up after a long day of exams, studying and essays. Being a part of those communities rejuvenates the student’s drive to continue working to remain a part of their group,” said Jordan.

“I joined a club to help stave off the pressure of being over-worked and being bored in my room all day. Being part of this esports club has truly helped me feel like part of something bigger, and it gave me the drive to better myself in my classes.”

Even so, Dr. Hird says there are safeguards in place to make sure students are leveling up their grades, too.

“It’s important to have a healthy work-life balance. We are going to limit access to the esports facility and keep a close eye on our student-athletes’ academic performance to help them achieve that balance,” he said.

As WVU Tech’s gamer community finds that balance, it’s ready to take on the new challenge of gaming as sport. It’s ready to embrace new people and new ways of thinking. It’s ready to grow.

For gamers like Kat, it’s only a matter of time.

“As time goes on, more students that come into college will have grown up with games of all sorts, so our community is just going to get bigger and bigger.”