NAU Esports club growing in recognition, popularity as team becomes official sport in fall | Local

ZACH BRADSHAW Special to the Daily Sun

For all the things that sports are — gritty, competitive and more — esports are becoming the same. And Northern Arizona University is helping usher in a new era of athletics that invites the world of electronic gaming.

Beginning in the fall of 2022, Northern Arizona will officially recognize its esports team as part of the athletic department.

The move comes in the wake of a surge of players joining the gaming movement. As of now, there are more than 1,050 active players in NAU Esports.

The team offers eight different video games to compete in: Rocket League, Halo, Call of Duty, Rainbow Six Siege, Counter-Strike: Global Offense, Overwatch, Valorant and League of Legends.

This spring was one of the best gaming seasons Northern Arizona has ever seen. The League of Legends team was crowned champion of the Big Sky Conference, and the Rocket League team finished second for its respective sport. The Call of Duty team came within one victory of a playoff berth.

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To be considered as part of the athletic department is monumental, said Richard Young, an executive member of the team.

The team will now be able to receive significant financial backing from the university. Money can be put toward new gaming equipment — headsets or computers with large RAM storage for example — as well as funding travel to out-of-state tournaments (which kept the Esports team out of a lot of competitions this past year).

Moreover, being within the athletic department means the team can now offer scholarships, giving prospective gamers an incentive to join the Northern Arizona squad.

“Most colleges pay their players,” Young said. “The university is going to offer recruiting scholarships that will help the program find outside talent.”

The new funding will also give an incentive for students to be part of the team’s board of directors. The program director can receive up to $62,000, while program coordinators can receive up to $82,000. Freshman recruits can receive up to $20,000 in scholarships, while up to $5,000 will be put toward on-campus promotional events.

Players on a premier team within NAU Esports can receive up to $65,000, and about $1,500 will be devoted to the team’s travel expenses.

“It’s really hard to run a club when there’s not much backing. We tried raffles and giveaways, but nothing seemed to really fundraise,” Young said. “This new money, though, will help us build up the team.”

Young is a firm believer that esports should be considered athletic because they require unrelenting attention and mental astuteness.

“Esports are mentally demanding,” says Young, captain of the Call of Duty team. “It’s super competitive, there’s constant gameplay, and that’s not just a casual thing anybody can do.”

Young has played for the team for two years, and knows the esports environment is cutthroat.

“One thing about esports is that the instant you’re not playing, someone is out there getting better,” he said. “You have to constantly be in front of a screen.”

Young says there are multiple factors to account for in a match. There’s multiple players with different jobs, such as running a submachine gun or a long-distance rifle. His job is to facilitate all the players and make sure the team is on the same page.

“I’m supposed to be the aggressor of the game and be an anchor while the others are holding all the long angles,” Young said. “And that’s the strategic mindset of the game — it’s mental. You’re not just playing video games, there’s a strategy to it.”

Young has headed marketing and communications for the esports team for about a year and has helped build the social media page to be one of the most popular among all esports. In the month of February, the NAU Esports Instagram account had nearly 45 million impressions, or views, of its posts, which ranked fifth among all esports Instagram accounts nationwide.

Wins like that can’t be taken lightly, Young said, because they’re a sign of the growing popularity of esports.

“I love my teammates, they’re my boys, you know?” Young said. “We’ve had our ups and downs and we have our egos, but whenever we have issues, we don’t take it personally. Being able to play with people like that builds a lot of chemistry.”

Young cherishes his time on the team, as it has helped him make new connections and find new opportunities.

“The esports team helped me get an internship with a Minnesota team and now I’m doing work for them,” Young said. “I’ve found that being in public relations for an esports team is my dream job, and I have something in common with all the connections I’ve made: we all have a love for the game.”

In March, Young was given the opportunity to join the esports team of Bethany College in Kansas. The school offered Young a full-ride scholarship to head marketing and communications, but Young declined.

He said he helped build both the NAU Esports social media accounts and the Call of Duty team to what they are today, and he couldn’t just leave his home unit.

“The job’s not finished; I’ve got to finish what I started,” he said.

Young, a soon-to-be junior, believes NAU Esports won’t reach its full potential before he graduates. But for now, Young is happy having helped the team get to where it is today.

“It’s really cool to be one of the founding fathers,” Young said. “I’m kind of like the godfather.”

Young encourages everyone, regardless of experience or skill level, to try out for the team, as it helps members gain valuable experience in not just the realm of esports, but in every sport.

“Even if you don’t play, there’s a place for you in esports — you can be a general manager, you can live broadcast matches, you can do graphic design or learn event management,” Young said. “The skills that you learn in esports can translate to any other sport, and it’s a really good resume builder.”

The NAU Esports team can be found on most major social media platforms. Tournament play is yearround, with all matches being live-streamed on Twitch.

Now that scholarships can be given as incentives, Young hopes even more people will want to join in the esports action.

“The main thing in college is just to try new things. But seriously, how cool would it be to play something you love and then be paid for it?” he said.

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