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Gamers ready: ESports expands to varsity level at Central Michigan


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Central Michigan University eSports team (photo credit: Adam Sparkes CMU Communications).

Players battle on The Crystal Scar or Summoner's Rift, and give their all for the game. 

The competition intensifies with each passing minute until the event ends. 

After the game is over, the competitors set down their headsets and leave the virtual world. 

The players compete in the newest varsity sport at Central Michigan University —

ESports.

CMU announced the expansion of esports to the varsity level in a press release in December. 

Katherine Ranzenberger is the head coach and adviser of the program. She also works as a marketing and communication writer for the university's communication department. 

"Esports is competitive video games," Ranzenberger said. "It is along the same lines as every other sport on campus. It is teaching team-building skills and problem-solving skills, just on a computer instead of on a field or court."

Building the skills necessary for success is one of the main goals of the program. 

As the head coach and adviser, Ranzenberger said she views her role as helping her team members gain the professional skills they need for life after CMU. 

"At the end of the day, I want these students to be successful," Ranzenberger said. "I want them to have the opportunity to play this game at the varsity level, then graduate and have a fulfilling career. 

"I've thoroughly enjoyed getting to know these students and I'm excited to continue working with them."

Ranzenberger graduated from CMU with a journalism degree in 2015 and earned a Master's of Science and Administration in 2019. 

One of the students Ranzenberger leads is Alek Smith, a junior from Macomb. 

Smith said he heard of the team his freshman year from a poster on campus and he has seen a lot of change in his two years with the program. 

"I didn’t know many people until I went to 'league club'," Smith said. "When I went there, that’s where I found some of my great friends and one of my roommates."

An aspect of the team Smith said he enjoys the most is everyone pushes to improve. 

He added it feels like typical sports with the atmosphere, drive to be one of the best teams and the experiencing the highs and lows of winning and losing. 

"I enjoy most about the team is the commitment to learn and better ourselves with understanding we’re all not perfect," Smith said. "We all manage to play well together and better ourselves with each game we play."

The esports club moved two of its games – League Of Legends, which Smith plays, and Overwatch – to the varsity level, but still offers several games for members to play. 

At CMU, there are two teams at the varsity level, Maroon and Gold. 

The Gold team is considered the first-string team while the Maroon is considered the second-string. Ranzenberger said the rosters are set a week in advance but can change around based on communication and team dynamics. 

Skill level, or "rank" in the gaming world, varies from game to game and team to team. Ranzenberger said the players on the Gold team are at Gold or Diamond for League of Legends. The Maroon team ranks anywhere from Iron to Platinum. 

While the NCAA governs other varsity sports – football, basketball among others – the National Association of Collegiate eSports (NACE) governs esports. 

NACE, along with the game's developers, determine how the game is played in competition. 

Riot Games is the developer for League of Legends and runs collegiate League of Legends. Tespa oversees the Overwatch competitions.  

CMU competes in the eSports Collegiate Conference.

In the eSports Collegiate Conference, all 12 schools that make up the Mid-American Conference in other varsity sports compete against one another. 

Smith said the nature of the program not only allows students to connect with new people on campus, but they also have the chance to connect with people at other schools in the conference. 

"It gives players the opportunity to play against other schools, compete in tournaments, and build relationships with students and staff," Smith said. "It’s a great experience to have and (I) hope all colleges/schools implement this."

As the program awaits its facility in the Student Activity Center, the teams practice in the West Conference room in the SAC, which is affectionately called "T2" (Temporary temporary space) according to Ranzenberger. 

For League of Legends, the team practices Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. as well as individually. Overwatch players practice at the same time on Mondays and Wednesdays. 

Before practice, players go over a video review of their previous games to see what they did well and what the need to improve on, much like in football or basketball. 

"We're always looking at where we can improve," Ranzenberger said. "Especially communication and teamwork. These games are all about that." 

Currently, the two teams have 26 members with 10 for League of Legends and 16 for Overwatch. League of Legends competitions are 5-on-5 while Overwatch games are 6-on-6. 

Members of the program spread out across several academic programs. Ranzenberger said she has a student who is an American Sign Language minor, another who is a computer science major. 

"It doesn't matter your major or minor," Ranzenberger said. "If you're interested in esports and want to come play, you can play." 

Luke Martin is the captain of the League of Legends Gold Team and is the president of the esports club. 

A senior from Wyoming, Martin plays several games and follows many of the professional games. 

When he first arrived at CMU, Martin said he got to know a few of the members on social media and other gaming outlets. 

"From there, I continued by playing on some of the competitive teams throughout my years and getting more active in my role as a club leader," Martin said. "Finally, I’ve been as involved as I can be with the incoming expansion of the esports program and act as a beacon of experience to help the school understand what’s necessary of the program."

Martin said his favorite aspect of the team is the friendships and bonds he formed with his teammates. 

"This was the reason I really broke out of my shell and got involved on campus," Martin said. "The sense of comfortability being around other gamers that can relate and share the same passion that I have, helped me find a spot where I belonged."

Friendships are the foundation of the program to create the atmosphere and chemistry for a successful team. 

Martin said he hears from other members in the club that many of their first friends in college and the majority of their friends come from the program. 

"This program is a very useful tool to have on campus," Martin said. "This program is a great way for students to pursue something they’re passionate about, where there’s a market available that’s emerging currently."

Ranzenberger said the team plans on hosting events, but there is no confirmation but she is working to set dates. 

The program has a couple of ways students and other followers can connect. 

Ranzenberger said the streaming platform Twitch is a way to see what's going on with the team, its matches and watch members play on occasion. There is also a messaging app, Discord, where players and those connected can chat about the esports world. 

While the platforms are currently an open server and followers may join as approved by Ranzenberger or captains of the team, it may change due to NACE compliance.

Similar to the NCAA, there are rules regarding social media and how organizations or teams respond on the platforms. 

"We're always representing the university and we always want to make sure we're putting our best foot forward," Ranzenberger said. 

Tryouts for the program are upcoming and will be announced at a later date. 

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