Thomas College, pioneer of the electronic sports program at university level

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WATERVILLE – Thomas College this week launched a team of university athletes different from all other states and most of the country's inhabitants. eSports program.

Instead of fighting for points on a court or field, the newest Terriers lead characters into virtual environments in order to achieve different goals, depending on the game: destroying the base of the game. opposing team, be the last person standing, defuse a bomb, and do 75 "kill" first.

While computer gaming is much less physically active than traditional gaming, games challenge players' cognitive and strategic abilities.

"It's going to sound complicated," said coach Martin Schelasin, "but here's how I would describe (eSport): if you play chess, each player only has one piece, he can move in different ways at different times of the game and 10 players on the board. "

The eSports program, launched this week after students return to campus after the winter break, is part of Thomas College's plan to attract a new student pool to the school. Local benefactor Bill Alfond donated more than $ 100,000 to launch the program, according to Assistant Dean of Student Engagement Jim Delorie.

"This summer, (Alfond) went to Laurie (Lachance, president of Thomas College), claiming that he was seriously interested in funding eSports," Delorie said. "He sees potential growth in the sector and also sees e-sport as a way to differentiate college from schools in the region and to offer students the opportunity to demonstrate their skills by representing the college at of competitions. "

In May 2017, Alfond also presented to the college its largest grant: a $ 5.3 million donation through the Harold Alfond Foundation, to fund an innovation center.

Ryan Hemenway, a student at Thomas College, on the left, and Martin Schelasin, head coach of the games, watch the action on Tuesday in the popular gambling hall known as CAVE, the cradle of campus-based competitive e-sports. Thomas in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

While many colleges in Maine – including Colby College, Bates College and the University of Maine at Farmington – With its gaming clubs, Thomas College eSports is the first college-level college team in the state and the third in New England, according to Schelasin. So far, 50 students, about 5% of the school population, have committed to being part of the team. ESports team groups may be larger than traditional sports team groups, as this sport encompasses a variety of different games, from the popular Fortnite battle-style game to first-person shooter games such as Call of Duty: Black Ops "to the FIFA professional football simulation. Each member of the team does not play every game.

"One of the crazy things is that … comparing myself to a traditional basketball coach, for example, is completely inaccurate because I effectively manage seven or eight different sports from the point of view of knowledge. Said Schelasin.

Some of the games students can play are Fortnite, Call of Duty, FIFA, League of Legends, Overwatch, Smite, Playerunknown Battlegrounds, World of Warcraft, and Rocket League. . "

Thomas College eSports will participate in the National Association of Collegiate eSports and other game-specific leagues, which will be determined in the coming days according to the interest of the students. Schelasin said he had registered the team in the conference is the League of Legends' university group, which has 28 teams and will feature weekly matches of the eponymous match "League of Legends". The Thomas College students played their first training match against the University of West Virginia Tuesday night, and their first game will be on Thursday.

"Our record of wins and losses will be considered very similar to NFL style support, where we are part of the East Conference; and based on our performances, we will be invited to an in-person broadcast event all the way to the national finals, "said Schelasin.

Schelasin has particular expertise in "League of Legends", having "reached the 32nd rank in North America" ​​and launched Cloak n Dagger Gaming, the main online resource for a particular format of the game. Before his arrival on campus, some students already knew Schelasin under his gamer label, Anderzz. Delorie said he considered Schelasin an asset for the college's eSports program.

"We want the program to grow and move, and we are confident that we have hired the right person who will be able to achieve it," he said. "Martin knows what he's doing, he knows the industry and he will be able to give them the opportunity to show them their potential and help us recruit (eSport players) in the future."

The idea of ​​launching Thomas College's electronic sports team was particularly interesting for Schelasin, who grew up in Scarborough and graduated from the University of Southern Maine in 2016.

"When it appeared on my radar, it was a bit like I was shocked to see that it existed," Schelasin said. "The fact that there was a career related to electronic sports in this state invited me a lot, so I immediately expressed my interest."

"We are pioneers in this state and we are not far behind those of the entire country, so this gives me the opportunity to really make it a model of excellence, even at the national level," he said. he declared. "We can establish a road map for schools that will inevitably arrive."

In the end, Schelasin stated that he wanted to work toward a "degree of integration" between the eSports program and the college's sports management training program. For the moment, participation in the eSports team provides no academic credit.

"I know that in other countries of the country, there are many undergraduate degrees in eSports. It's something that exists, "said Schelasian. "I have not spoken to any administration here, but it is a precedent, and I think it could be very useful if the sector develops in the future. I mean, we are thinking (the industry) of earning several billion dollars by the end of the year, so career opportunities are not lacking. "

John Farrington, a student at Thomas College, plunges Tuesday into the sounds and images of "Call of Duty" as he tries to stay alive and eliminate his opponents while playing video games in the CAVE room, home of university academic Varsity competitors on the Internet. Thomas Campus in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

Several of the students involved in the eSports team expressed frustration with an older generation who has trouble understanding the value of the game.

"My mother sees it somehow" You're just playing games; why do not you find a job? Or something like that, "said John Farrington, a freshman at Thomas. "But it's like you can make it a job. You can actually make money with it. "

Schelasin developed this.

"There are a multitude of ways to (make a living with electronic sport)," he said. "It's the other goal that people do not realize. Yes, there are people who play video games; There are also coaching staff, sports psychologists and broadcasting staff. The number of jobs created by this industry and the ways in which people can channel their passion towards this career are very numerous and legitimate. "

By broadcasting live online games on platforms such as twitch.tv, individuals can earn substantial salaries. This is also where the viewer comes in. On Twitch, viewers pay to subscribe to player channels and give money to players they find talented or entertaining. One of the most popular streamers, Tyler 'Ninja' Blevins, earns more than $ 500,000 a month playing "Fortnite"On this platform.

Schelasin works to take advantage of the industry from another angle: nutritional supplementation. With the help of one of his friends and a team of scientists, Schelasin has developed an all-natural, all-natural energy drink for players that contains natural extracts that stimulate cognition and tense. of reaction.

At the very least, noted Schelasin, participation in electronic sports is developing important career-oriented skills.

"It teaches very intense critical thinking," he said. "You can not succeed at the majority of these games without becoming very strategic, which is therefore very useful as a set of deductive reasoning skills and simply as a general way to tackle challenges."

Ryan Hemenway, a 23-year-old MBA student at Thomas College, has listed other ways in which to play "Fortnite" – particularly in the eSports team – where he plays. helped to develop intellectually.

"For me, one of the strengths to remember is improving your communication skills and strategic planning, among other things," Hemenway said. "There are certainly a lot of things you can dissociate from playing in an eSport (team) setting. When playing video games, the casual player would say, "Oh, they're wasting hours playing music without thinking." And it's like, no. There are many things you can remove. "

Hemenway is what Schelasin called one of the "stars" of the team. He is ranked first in Maine in "Fortnite" and second in New England. He also participated in the hiring of Schelasin.

Thomas College student John Farrington begins playing Call of Duty on Tuesday in the CAVE Hall, home to Varsity's competitive e-sports and university e-sports on Thomas' campus in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

"Unfortunately, I will only have one semester in this field," Hemenway said. He graduated in May. "I really want to see this program grow. I think that he certainly has the ability to grow tremendously. I've heard about what this is going to be in a few years and I'm really excited for that. "

For the moment, the Thomas eSports team is training in a classroom on the second floor of the Alfond Academic Center, with Alienware consoles, displays, keyboards, mice, and high-end backlit headphones. with customizable colors. Schelasin said the Dell-owned company was "among the leaders in the industry." Machines can process graphics up to eight times faster and have a usable memory two to three times greater than that of an average computer, according to Schelasin.

"When we came up with the proposal, we wanted to have the equipment of the highest quality, so that students would realize that we are committed to it," Delorie said. "They bought the right machines and designed the room in the right way so that when students come to Thomas for eSports, they will not be inhibited by the machine."

"Alfond did not want to do anything stupid, but dive and really do it right," he added.

Delorie noted that administrators were looking to add space for e-sports in the new campus athletics facility being designed. Although the school is currently unable to offer students scholarships to participate in Thomas's e-sports, Delorie said the opportunity was "not something we said was off the table."

The NCAA does not regulate electronic sports.

Central Maine Community College will be the second institution in the state to add a college-level electronic sports team after joining the National Association of College Electronic Sports in the fall of 2019.

Meg Robbins – 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins

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