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April 17, 2020 LA GRANDE, Ore. – While in-person athletics and varsity sports are on hold, Eastern Oregon University’s esports team is hitting its stride.
The competitive program was recently established and now boasts 27 players involved in multiple teams and four different games: League of Legends, Overwatch, Magic the Gathering: Arena and Tekken 7. Each game uses a distinct competition structure that often mirrors traditional athletics.
“It is very common for leagues to have a regular season, often round-robin, where best-of-three matches are played,” said EOU Esports Assistant Coach Ethan Melville. “Playoffs then take place with the top teams and are usually single-elimination. With fighting games, you actually see a format very reminiscent of a wrestling tournament with a double-elimination bracket.”
This new form of intercollegiate competition sometimes earns raised eyebrows, but Melville said he enjoys introducing first-time fans and players to this many-faceted program.
“When I bring up esports I often expect the question, ‘What’s the point?’ or, ‘Why not just play real sports?’ I love the opportunity to explain to people who are passionate about traditional sports that I was the same way with football or wrestling,” Melville said. “The experiences I had with sports in high school were extremely formative in shaping who I am.”
The program’s motto, “Esports is for everyone,” is a pillar of its mission to make the benefits of competition and teamwork accessible to all.
“People who did not or could not get the experience of traditional sports can get that through esports: the thrill of competition, the drive to self-betterment, learning how to overcome adversity or deal with losing in a healthy way,” Melville said. “Those are all lessons that can be learned through sport. Esports lifts the physical barriers to entry and makes these lessons accessible to everyone.”
Although in-person practices have ceased, the esports program is committed to continuing remotely. Players compete in several leagues against regional universities, including Western Washington University, Washington State University, Oregon Institute of Technology and Portland State University.
“We are committed during this crisis to scheduling scrimmage matches against some of these schools in order to provide experience for our players and to continue building relationships that facilitate our continued growth together as healthy rivals in competition,” Melville said.
Practicing and competing from home has its challenges, but it means that matches are streamed live so viewers can tune in and root for the blue and gold.
“It is definitely important with esports to have team cohesion and a sense of belonging that is fostered in-person just like any other sport,” Melville said.
Throughout its initial season, the EOU League of Legends team had an uphill battle, losing for several weeks on end. But Melville said his players’ dedication and hard-fought matches paid off.
“I feared that the losses would wear on them and that they may lose the motivation to keep playing, but it’s amazing watching that momentum shift,” Melville said. “One good play turned into a win, which turned into another, and they ended up winning their next five games and really turning around their season. Taking all the hard lessons they had learned and seeing the lightbulb turn on for them was gratifying and inspiring.”
But the thrill of victory isn’t Melville’s only goal for the esports program. Like many EOU athletics coaches, he sees personal success as equally important to competitive success.
“Even if we won every game and reached professional levels of play, our No. 1 goal is developing players who are adept at working as part of a team, culturally sensitive, and open to new ideas,” Melville said. “We hope that with everything that we’re teaching our players, that winning is only a side-effect of the progress our players make as students and as people.”
EOU esports matches are streamed on the Twitch platform at twitch.tv/EOU1UpClub. More information about the esports program is available at eou.edu/esports.
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