Joshua Hart of Texas A&M esports Overwatch Maroon Team competes at a tournament before COVID-19 ended in-person competitions.

While other campus sports are on pause due to the coronavirus, the Texas A&M Esports Club is up late nights with keyboard lights and headsets on.

While traditional sports viewership is still larger than esports viewership, the esports industry is winning overall growth through online streaming and more players. With social distancing still encouraged, even major sports have turned to video games to stream content for fans. Through it all, A&M esports team members have continued to play in tournaments and build strategy to continue a winning tradition.

A&M’s esports team has been competing since 2013, said Blaine Morton, a tech management senior and vice president of competitions.

“Our ‘Call of Duty’ team is second right now in the tournament they are running in,” Morton said. “And these tournaments are still going on. Our ‘R6’ and our ‘Rocket League’ team have been doing really well, actually. Recently our ‘Rocket League’ team got second in a tournament they were in, and only lost to UTD.”

With more attention on gaming, players can explore new games since some franchises are giving early access to players, said Collin Schmidt, a sport management junior.

“A new game, ‘Valorant,’ just got released, and it’s huge right now,” Schmidt said. “I’ve noticed a lot of the [professional league] franchises like Dallas Empire and Atlanta FaZe have been playing with celebrities and athletes. I know the Migos are getting involved with the Atlanta team now.”

Esports can be disorganized since many individuals have to navigate competitive gameplay on their own, so most beginners tend to focus on individual gameplay, Schmidt said.

“To me, the club provides kind of a structure and a community,” Schmidt said. “The club gives me access to a Discord, which is kind of like a groupchat where I can play with other people from different colleges.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how the club can compete in tournaments and gameplay, Schmidt said.

“The club has a Local Area Network usually where they can all get together and play,” Schmidt said. “LANs provide an equal playing field because some people have fast internet and some people have slow internet so when you’re together on a LAN everyone is even.”

The Texas A&M Esports Club is hosting smaller, online-only events since its players are currently all over the country, said Morton.

“All of our in-person events were canceled; we were going to have one more in-person LAN on Kyle Field,” Morton said. “As a club, we were also going to be part of ‘Big Event,’ so all of those get togethers are put aside for another time now.”

Each team has been hosting smaller events or streaming in-houses, where players don’t play publicly or to compete, for games like “Rocket League,” “Super Smash Bros.” and “Call of Duty,” Morton said.

“I’ve actually seen the people who typically stream gain a lot more attention now because people don’t really have much elsewhere to go,” Morton said. “Their communities are kind of growing due to this, and that’s kind of interesting.”

Streaming sites such as Twitch are reaching record numbers in hours watched and streamed, with the site registering over three billion hours watched for the first time, according to a Streamlabs industry report.

Social distancing has also affected the professional esports industry, said sophomore Jose Varela, a team captain in the Texas A&M Esports Club.

“Most of the professionals, at that next level, play in a Local Area Network,” Varela said. “They go to a stadium, they all played wired amongst one another right there, not through WiFi. That’s been halted and they have been doing the remainder of tournaments online. Which has changed the scene, whether you watch livestreams or play, quite a bit.”

Esports industry revenue continues to increase, with the number of investments doubling in 2018 and projected to hit $1.8 billion in 2022, according to a Business Insider report. That puts the viewership on pace to nearly double since 2017, according to the report. Gaming is the fastest growing form of entertainment in the world, with revenue growing globally at around 9.7 percent per year.

Esports tournaments include prize money for winning teams. Any revenue the A&M esports team makes from tournaments goes directly to players, said Morton.

Before shelter-in-place orders, Varela said he worked at a local bar and met with his teammates to practice gameplay for “Call of Duty” three to four times a week. Despite not being able to continue work, Varela said he made the decision to stay in College Station due to lack of a strong enough internet connection at home to support schoolwork and gameplay.

“I’ve been using the money I do have left to go grocery shopping,” Varela said. “But I guess I don't mind waking up a bit later and doing school work from home instead of walking a mile between classes.”

The attention esports is receiving is positive and might stimulate more growth beyond the current circumstances, Morton said.

“I definitely think it will hold just because of the weight it already has behind it,” Morton said. “Now with this extra attention, the span of when we all go back will be a critical point in determining how fast it moves.”

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