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Big Ten launches inaugural esports season

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Alex Williams, a second-year in computer science engineering, prepares to scrimmage Robert Morris University during a Feb. 13 League of Legends practice. Credit: Sheridan Hendrix | Senior Lantern Reporter

Ohio State is most recognized for its championship-caliber football program, but it could begin to be recognized for a new brand of collegiate athletics –– esports.

In January, Big Ten Network announced the launch of its official “League of Legends” season in partnership with Riot Games, the creator of the online game. League of Legends clubs from 12 schools in the Big Ten Conference will participate in the inaugural season, including a team from OSU.

Kentaro Ogawa, a fifth-year in food business management, started playing “League” of Legends after the game was first released in 2009, when he was in high school. But after going to OSU and playing “League” for different student organizations, Ogawa said he wanted to create a collegiate team inspired by professional gamers.

“Everyone was starting to copy the professional players, because you would see it over social media, where they would have gaming houses and paid coaches and managers,” Ogawa said. “It’s very exciting to see that.”

Ogawa hosted tryouts in 2015 to build his own five-player team, as well as recruiting other members to hold roles of a coach, manager and analyst. Last season, OSU was ranked as one of the top eight teams in North America.

Although the Big Ten does not sponsor esports, nor are they officially sanctioned by the NCAA, the conference started to dip its toes into the world of “League of Legends” in 2016 after hosting an invitational at PAX East in Boston, one of the largest gaming events in North America. It was that exhibition match between OSU and Michigan State, which OSU won, that evolved into a season-long competition, said Peter Ferguson, the team’s coach.

“We knew that (Big Ten Network) was interested in doing something, but by no means did I think it would happen this quickly,” said Ferguson, who graduated from OSU in 2016.

Teams compete in either the Big Ten East or West divisions, and play in a best-of-three round robin. After the round-robin matches, the top four teams from each division will compete in a single-elimination playoff bracket, ultimately ending in a faceoff between the East and West division champions. OSU’s team is currently 2-1 this season, beating Michigan State and Indiana but falling to Maryland.

Each week, one match will be aired live online on Watch.lolesports.com and also on BTN2go. OSU’s first broadcasted match will air on Feb. 27 against Michigan.

OSU’s “League” team practices three times a week, scrimmaging against teams from other divisions, as well as against semi-professional and professional teams. Unlike most collegiate teams, however, OSU “League” players do not often practice together or in person. Players usually compete in tournament matches from their apartment or dorm rooms.

“Because it’s all online, it doesn’t matter where the teams are,” Ogawa said. “Generally, all players would just stay in their own dorms or apartments and get on something like Skype to keep in touch and communicate with each other while they played.”

In an effort to build team synergy, Ogawa said the team is now trying to meet in person every other week for practice at the Fawcett Center, something made possible through a new relationship with the Department of Athletics. Jim Null, associate director of IT for athletics, said he had just started learning what esports were when the Big Ten announced the tournament season. Null then reached out to Ogawa to see how he could help out.

“My role (in the department of athletics) is in technology, so I thought, ‘This sounds like a good fit, something fun and interesting and new,’” Null said.

Because collegiate esports is still relatively unknown to many, Null and Ogawa said they are trying to figure out what exactly OSU’s role could be in the future. For now, Null said he thinks a lot of that comes through informing people about the team.

“I think it’s learning what it is and educating people on what it is,” he said. “I mean the fanbase is pretty darn passionate, the players are passionate and it’s making a mark worldwide in esports.”

A viewing party will be hosted at the Huntington Club in Ohio Stadium for students to watch the OSU-Michigan live stream. Null said he hopes that this new tournament will interest students who aren’t necessarily interested in traditional sports.

“I don’t think all of our students are going to football games,” Null said. “For some students, it’s just not their thing and (this could be) a way to reach out to those students. There might a connection there.”

For Ogawa, he said whatever the future of collegiate esports may hold, he hopes to see what people view as a sport expand.

“I don’t know how much longer “League of Legends” will stay relevant, but I know esports will stay relevant,” Ogawa said. “Maybe it will switch over to another game or title, but I think just because there’s a demographic that hasn’t been touched yet in esports, it’ll stay for a while. We’re working to change the social stigma of video gamers, because right now it has a bad reputation. But, if it’s seen as something that is comparable to traditional sport in a way, the demographic will expand.”

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