Rhys Wright has played on athletic teams, but the sophomore transfer student from the state of Washington moved across the country to The College of Saint Rose to experience a different type of competition this fall: esports.
Wright started gaming in an amateur league a few years ago, and she worked hard to improve her game by watching videos and listening to the coaching from her amateur league. Then she saw an online posting for the new esports team at Saint Rose and connected with Dan Marino, the Saint Rose esports coach (not the famed NFL quarterback). Marino offered Wright a scholarship that would make it possible for her to attend Saint Rose and pursue esports while also working toward a degree in finance.
“I’m proud to say I play for the varsity esports team,” says Wright, a member of the team’s Overwatch roster. “It’s a good feeling to be able to compete at this level.” Esports launched this year, and it quickly drew 35 students from throughout New York state, Massachusetts, Maryland, and the state of Washington, the majority of them either first-year or transfer students.
A state-of-the-art Golden Knights Esports Arena arena, which opened in August, debuted to jaw drops from players who were surprised to find 24 of the latest and greatest gaming PCs. Although there are collegiate competitions for a variety of video games, for its inaugural year, the Golden Knights will focus on two: Overwatch and League of Legends.
The program competes in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC), and the Golden Knights average one to two competitions a week, most of which are played at home, since the games themselves are online. Rosters are five or six players, depending on the game, and often, Marino is able to field multiple rosters in one competition.
The team kicked off its season in September by traveling to Pennsylvania for a large tournament hosted by the esports powerhouse Harrisburg University Storm, where the Golden Knights posted a strong first showing, defeating teams from Shenandoah University and the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Marino runs Golden Knights Esports like an athletic team, preaching the virtues of sleep and nutrition, limiting practice hours to 10 to 15 a week, and breaking down film (or VODs, as they call them in the gaming world) with his players as they look to exploit opponents’ weaknesses or refine their own strategy. They wear jerseys with their “in-game” names, and players assume roles based on their strengths, just like skill position players on a football field.
And unlike a new athletics team, an esports team can quickly find success, as game play is more about learning how to think than physical ability.
“It’s just like a basketball team or soccer team,” says Kameron Kelly, a sophomore communications major who has been playing esports for about five years and has also competed in traditional sports. “People shot call, like a team captain telling people what they need. The coaches serve the same value. They watch video, pinpoint what we can do. It’s the same thing for our game. We watch our practices and scrimmages and stuff, and we go over the game.”
But the growth that happens for the esports players isn’t just within the game. The Golden Knights talk a lot about how esports has taught them some of the same principles and characteristics developed through traditional sports – self-discipline, time management, decision-making, self-confidence, and teamwork.
Kelly says he self-reflects more often now. In a game, when mistakes are made, he has to quickly move on and consider how he can do better next time. Now he does the same with a bad score on a test.
Kenny Zajesky, a senior computer science major who will graduate in December, says he’s generally reserved but esports has helped force him to be more outspoken and lead.
And Kaitlyn Holder, a sophomore marketing-management major who grew up in a gaming family, says esports has helped her better manage her anxiety, and her teammates have been supportive of her learning to manage high-intensity in-game scenarios.
“Gaming has helped me a lot with my anxiety, and being on a team is even more helpful. If I do feel uncomfortable, I’m like, ‘Hey dude, I’m kind of not OK right now,’” Holder says.
“I think we’re developing a lot of soft skills,” Marino says. “I don’t have to give a lesson on communication. It happens naturally with the game – communication, leadership, decisionmaking, decision-making under pressure.”
The future of esports at Saint Rose is bright, Marino says. Every student who is willing to commit time to esports has a spot on the team, and he sees the full roster swelling to 60 to 70 students between the varsity team and a lessdemanding esports club, which would make Saint Rose one of the larger esports programs in the nation.
“I thought I would never get an official jersey with my name on it,” Zajesky says. “It’s kind of nice to be part of the first iteration of this program. We’re traveling (to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) to go play video games with hundreds of other people, who are also playing video games. It’s the coolest thing that I’ve ever done. I’m ecstatic about it.” – By Jennifer Gish