Last December, MU made national headlines when it announced the formation of the university’s inaugural esports team, becoming the first institution in the SEC and the third Power Five school to do so.
Twenty-one members were selected for the three games, which are Overwatch, League of Legends and Rocket League. Those selected moved in on Aug. 12 and began training for the upcoming season. On move-in day, players gathered for the first time as a team in the new Mizzou Esports training facility located in Center Hall.
“It was tremendous to see these students who are receiving scholarships that were so excited about college, many of them here for the first time, many of them freshmen,” head coach Kevin Reape said. “They've all made massive life decisions and changes to come to Mizzou for gaming, and just to see all of them in person and the excitement that they had was one of the most amazing moments of my life.”
Six players make up the League of Legends team, nine make up the Overwatch team and four make up the Rocket League team. Each player is responsible for devoting 20 hours a week to the program, which includes practices, competition, study hours, team meetings and team dinners. Typically, practices consist of study hours from 2 to 4 p.m., reviewing videos on demand, or gaming streams, from 5 to 6 p.m., practicing from 6 to 9 p.m. and reviewing team plays the following day.
Although the team has yet to officially participate in a tournament, it did host a Rocket League tournament on Sept. 10. Eighty schools competed and 300 students were involved in the competition, which the MU team won. Official tournaments will begin at the end of the month.
“Right now we're focused on practicing every night,” Reape said. “We have scrimmages against other college programs, just to figure out where we stand and where we can improve. We're trying to make those improvements as quickly as possible because the seasons begin in the next three to four weeks.”
In total, the announcement of MU’s inaugural esports team received 40 million impressions across various media sites like The Joplin Globe, The Columbia Missourian and ESPN.
When news broke that the university was launching the program, Reape received several emails from notable players expressing interest in joining the team. Over 800 students from across every state applied for the Overwatch and League of Legends teams and an additional 500 applied for the Rocket League team, Reape said.
“We started the process of going through that list and determining who would be not only really good at gaming, but then also would embody what Mizzou is all about: go to class, graduating in four years, come in with good test scores and is driven to succeed after college,” Reape said. “Because we had such a large pool, we were able to narrow it down to some pretty impressive teams that we have.”
Additionally, Reape found himself recruiting coaches for the team. Reape appointed third year veterinary school student Ethan Baxter as strategic coach for Rocket League due to his status of being ranked as one of the top players in the nation.
As strategic coach, Baxter analyzes footage of MU and professional players. During the first few weeks, his goals have shifted through his new role.
“Originally, it's just kind of thinking, ‘let's get a group of guys together, let's be competitive, let's have fun and let's improve,’” Baxter said. “We've been fortunate and had a lot of success our first four weeks here. And now our goals have shifted to what do we need to do to make sure that we actually can win something.”
While many players selected for the program are freshmen, several returning and transfer students make up the roster. Over winter break, sophomore flex support Jack Vickers found himself debating whether or not to leave his friends and girlfriend at Kansas State University to pursue his passion professionally.
“It's always been my dream to play Overwatch competitively, either at a collegiate or professional level,” Vickers said. “I kind of just did. My parents definitely were really supportive and then kind of pushed me to just go for it and take the jump.”
As one of the sophomores on the team, Vickers has found himself acting as a mentor to the younger players. Collectively, the program hopes to finish ranked either top three or top five in the nation.
“It's been probably the most and fastest growth of me as a person I've maybe ever had in my life,” Vickers said. “It's a lot different than every other Overwatch team that I've played on before where it's just online. You're seeing your teammates every day.”
Some skeptics may argue esports should not be classified as a varsity collegiate sport. However, according to Vickers, many of the same skills exist in esports.
“There's not a physical activity part of it,” Vickers said. “But if you look at the other aspects that make sports sports where you got strategy, you got teamwork. You have the individual level — you need to put in hours to improve yourself because no one's just naturally gifted at you know, football, basketball, hockey, whatever. All that applies to Overwatch.”
MU is the largest school in the National Association of Collegiate Esports with its 180 varsity teams membership. As head coach, Reape said he found difficulty in establishing a program for a relatively new activity.
“There's always going to be a challenge when you try to start a program that's never happened,” Reape said. “There's not a lot of other schools that I can call and ask for advice, or ask what they've done or what their challenges were. A lot of this we kind of dove in headfirst.”
In addition to competing in tournaments on campus, the team may participate in out-of-state matches. If selected for the collegiate playoffs, members would travel to Arizona. Students interested in streaming the tournaments can do so on twitch.tv/mizzouesports and check the Mizzou Esports Twitter for updates on livestreams @MizzouEsports.
“[I’m] just trying to improve myself as much as I can through the whole experience, because it's all new … I'm just taking it all in and making sure I can give 110% to it,” Vickers said.
Edited by Laura Evans | firstname.lastname@example.org