Wabash Valley is engaged in the meteoric rise of esports

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Wabash Valley is engaged in the meteoric rise of esports

You may be under the impression that the first player chosen by the Indiana Pacers in the calendar year 2018 was UCLA guard Aaron Holiday. You’d be wrong. The first player the Pacers chose in 2018 was the WoLF. If you only follow basketball as we’ve always known it, don’t fret about not knowing daftar poker who WoLF is. He didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament or in Europe and he isn’t going to provide the Pacers the extra shooter they need on the Bankers Life Fieldhouse hardwood.

WoLF, otherwise known as Queens, N.Y. resident Bryant Colon, was Pacers Gaming’s very first draft pick in April for the team’s inaugural NBA 2K League esports team.

The NBA and the NBA 2K18 video game gained a lot of notice by launching the first-ever esports league sanctioned by an existing professional sports league. The Pacers are one of 17 NBA franchises that sponsor an official team in the NBA 2K League, which will have a $1 million prize pool during its 2018 season.

In fact, Pacers Gaming played Milwaukee Bucks Gaming in the NBA 2K League on Saturday. The Pacers prevailed 76-63 and WoLF had 20 points and 16 assists to improve to 3-4 on the season. The Pacers are chasing 7-1 Blazers Gaming in the overall NBA 2K League standings.

Ready or not, welcome to the brave and growing world of esports.

Esports has existed in a nascent form since the 1990s when gamers played on then-advanced, but now-antiquated games and internet connectivity. With advances in technology and with a generation having grown up with the increasingly realistic immersion of the games themselves, esports has exploded in popularity.

According to Variety, esports was a $660 million industry in 2017 and it’s expected to surpass $1 billion by 2019. Esports represents a cottage industry on web sites like Youtube and it has its own popular streaming service, Twitch. It has its own channels in esportsTV and Ginx TV and the traditional networks have increased their programming of esports in recent years.

It has competitors who train much as their counterparts do in traditional sports. Both professional and collegiate leagues have burgeoning esports enterprises in the works. The International Olympic Committee has even recognized it.

“Competitive ‘eSports’ could be considered as a sporting activity, and the players involved prepare and train with an intensity which may be comparable to athletes in traditional sports,” said an IOC statement from October 2017.

It’s here in the Wabash Valley too. At the eBash location on South 3rd Street in Terre Haute, there’s a sign outside the business that declares EBash as the home of the Wabash Valley Highlanders, the esports team for the Wabash Valley.

And if a trip inside EBash on Saturday was any indication? Business and esports are booming.

What are esports?

West Terre Haute native Zack Johnson is the founder of eBash, which has been at its current location since 2004. On Saturday, he hosted an impromptu tournament involving the extremely popular survival game Fortnite.

While it’s not a sports game per se, the competition going on inside the building was as intense as any you’d find in a gym or outdoor field of competition. It was a full house on Saturday as competitors were vying to come out on top in the tournament.

There was money on the line — a $500 prize pool — and a bracket and all of the trappings you would have for any traditional sports invitational. It is also a chance for Johnson to scout local talent to build an esports roster for his Highlanders team once it begins competing in formal tournaments. Gamers were attracted by the fact it was a Duos Tryout as Fortnite can be played with two-man teams.

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Tribune-StarJoseph C. Garza

Bracket watch: Mike Jones, a junior at Indiana State University from West Lafayette, points to his team’s position on the bracket for friend, Dakota Wester, during the Fortnite tournament on Saturday at eBash.

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It’s a meritocracy to move up the ladder, but it has all-comers accessibility regardless of the game being used. For Johnson, that’s one of the most appealing things about esports.

“There is no limit to who can participate in esports. For traditional sports, there’s limits, physical limits that cut people out. Esports has players that are above anyone else, but it doesn’t keep anyone from participating,” Johnson said.

Johnson is a former athlete. He played basketball at West Vigo High School until 1992 and played at Rose-Hulman in the mid-1990s for the late Jim Shaw’s first Engineers teams.

Having gone the traditional sports route, Johnson noted that the competitiveness within esports is no different. He uses his traditional sports background to illustrate that to those who aren’t in the know.

“Competition is in my blood from an athletic sports standpoint. It allows me to translate that for a lot of people. It gets people to understand that this goes beyond kids just playing video games, which is the stereotype,” Johnson said.

Esports, for the uninitiated, are competitions in which online players join to compete against one another in a given game.

Depending on the game, you can compete as an individual or compete as part of a group that form a team. Many players play at home via an internet connection, but the high-stakes tournaments are usually organized on-site via a local area network, known as a LAN.

There’s not one unifying structure to it all. The way the competitions work are usually melded to whatever game is being used to compete. A NBA 2K tournament is going to be, more or less, like a traditional basketball tournament. League Of Legends, a battle arena game, is going to have a completely different gaming structure involving teams competing in a mass battle environment.

In the case of Pacers Gaming, it drafted players who have proven their abilities in NBA 2K tournaments nationwide.

WoLF, for example, literally plays a position with four other players on a virtual court just like “real” basketball. He has to make himself effective in much the same way a real player does by playing defense, exploiting favorable defensive matchups, draining open shots, etc., via his gaming skills.

Esports players in the NBA 2K League draw a salary, a modest one in the $30-$35,000 range, but it’s a dedicated job.

Within sports gaming, most traditional sports have some form of it. The NBA was ahead of the curve with the organization of its league, but other ball-and-stick games have their own followings. The NHL hasn’t formed a league as the NBA has, but it has had league-sanctioned tournaments. The NFL and its ever-popular Madden franchise have long had the same.

Auto racing simulations, such as iRacing, are also extremely popular. The tracks and cars are rendered to the point of extreme accuracy. Many real drivers use those simulations to prepare themselves for the real thing, especially for track layout, turn apexes, etc.

But esports goes beyond the traditional sports. Fortnite, League of Legends, Call Of Duty, Defense Of The Ancients universally known by gamers as DOTA and others may not be sports games, but their competitors are just as serious.

What goes into being a competitor?

It’s a question that would seem to have a simple answer. Just play the games, right? Think again.

“You can’t play video games for 18 hours a day and get good. A lot of players think they can play video games all day, but they’re not disciplined enough to play in the right way. Not doing anything structured isn’t the focused work of a team. It’s not the same as getting together with three other guys on your team where you’re practicing teamwork, callouts and strategies. It’s just like sports, it just is,” Johnson said.

Providing structure to the esports movement — popular, but is still in its formative, Wild West days — is a big deal to Johnson. It’s one reason why he formed the Highlanders.

However, you’ve got to be good to win even the local tournaments such as the Fortnite tournament eBash hosted Saturday. What goes into that?

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Tribune-StarJoseph C. Garza

Rocket launch witness: Michael Didier, seated left, watches as a rocket launches in the Fortnite video game match he is playing with teammate Skylar Long, right, on Saturday at eBash. Watching behind them are Caiden Daley, Joshua Morson and eBash founder, Zack Johnson.

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Terre Haute’s Skylar Long, soon-to-be moving to Indianapolis, has been competing at eBash since before it had a permanent building. Long, 26, analyzes his performances just like athletes in traditional sports do.

“You always have to be looking at the areas you’re bad at. When you die in a game? How did you die? You have to analyze everything you do wrong and make a point to fix it. I’ve watched hours of film to get ready for a tournament,” Long said.

So enter tournaments to get better, right? That’s not so simple either. Entering a LAN tournament requires travel and the costs cut a lot of competitors out from the start.

“You’ve got flights, hotels, food. Even online. If you want to get better? You have to put $10 down per tournament. It’s a decent chunk of change to do these things,” Long said.

Streaming has made esports a bit more accessible.

“You still have to win your local tournaments. That’s how it used to be before streaming got big. You worked your way up the LAN tournaments. Now with streaming? If someone notices you’re good enough, you can grow. Your name can get noticed, even through online gaming. The gaming community is cliquey, but as soon as the pros notice? You’re in. You can be top-level that fast,” Long said.

Film work? Constant self-evaluation? Esports takes discipline that’s required in every field of competition. Johnson learned how important it was when he competed in “real” basketball. He even draws upon those basketball experiences to help launch his esports aspirations.

“There’s no hierarchy in esports. Jim Shaw is a great example to use. He was never a great player, he was a student of the game studying it. You had to have that person in charge to organize it,” Johnson said. “That’s what we’re trying to do with Wabash Valley Highlanders. We’re helping these kids organize. If you haven’t played organized athletic sports, you don’t understand the structure of being on a team.”

Highlanders and how they fit in

Johnson has several reasons for creating the Highlanders. Some are to grow his business. Some are to give access to local competitors. In a bigger picture, it’s also to help be a part of the continuing form esports will eventually take as it gets more organized.

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Tribune-StarJoseph C. Garza

eSports in the Valley: The banner for the Wabash Valley Highlanders, the eSports team at eBash, hangs on the side of the building at the LAN center along south Third Street.

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The Highlanders will compete using the Zehn Masters engine and 10 games will be available to compete in on a rotating basis. Players will compete at the local level in LAN tournaments and then advance to nationwide competitions in WAN wide-area network competitions done remotely.

Johnson is working to get Zehn Masters locations in place outside the Wabash Valley. Once done, it will provide the structure for the Highlanders to compete in.

“We have to develop a level above the Highlanders while we develop the Highlanders. The Zehn Masters series allows centers like eBash to be able to have a path at the top to reach,” Johnson explained.

“In any given season, we’ll have 20 to 25 centers like us in North America that pay a fee. Buying a spot in the Zehn Masters final is one thing. Using that in your local store to create a community of gamers around that game to build your local team takes a lot of work. I think we’ll have to build a brand of our stores that are run under the same guidelines in a franchise-style model,” he added.

Ten games will rotate as part of this system. Johnson likened it to local golf or tennis tournaments. Gamers can compete in the games they excel at and have the structure by which to determine their aptitude.

“We want to build local communities around these games. Then for the cream of the crop? We’re going to assist them moving into the next level, whether it be regional or national level. That’s what the Wabash Valley Highlanders are all about, to give them a brand and a feeling for what they represent,” Johnson said.

Johnson also wants to make esports accessible at the grass roots level in a way Wabash Valley competitors and their families can both afford and understand.

Esports is often put under the microscope as to whether it’s a “real” sport or not. Johnson thinks that question, and whether esports get Olympic credibility, is beside the point if everyone doesn’t have access to the same ladder system to get better.

“Until you give kids in the Wabash Valley a chance to have success that’s not based on whose parents can fly everywhere to compete in these events, is it an authentic Olympic sport?” Johnson asked.

“Essentially, if you want to have the desire to be a football player? You can go for it and try it and we love that story. You cannot do that with esports. It’s totally driven by money. You have to have the money to enter big events and be picked up by a brand that can afford to keep paying you to go to these events and travel,” Johnson added. “We’re trying to localize that competition. It allows local players just trying to find out whether they’re the tenth-best or 20th-best in the Wabash Valley.”

Part of what will help the Highlanders, and esports generally, are greater awareness by the public at-large. Esports can be intimidating to non-gamers.

Creating a brand can help bridge that divide. The Highlanders provide that local branding conduit. Of course, with established organizations like the NBA and colleges getting heavily involved in esports, it can only help with any credibility gap. There will likely come a day when Indiana State fans root for the eSycamores.

“The colleges and pros getting into it are important because you can cheer for a brand. The Pacers getting into it? You can cheer for the Pacers against, say, Toronto. You have that loyalty to a brand,” said Johnson, who admitted that some of the games loved by esports participants don’t cross over into the mainstream.

“People get the NBA 2K League because it’s basketball. I can understand who’s doing good and who isn’t. A lot of games, unless you’re really into them, aren’t easy to follow. That’s an uphill battle getting mainstream,” he said.

At the end of the day? It’s all about beating someone and rising to the top of your discipline. Gavin Gilliam, 17, who lives in Clinton and who attends South Vermillion High School, was among the Fortnite competitors on Saturday. The Highlanders would give him the chance to reach the gaming glories he dreams of.

“I want to be known for what you can do. It’s hard to blow up on Twitch or Youtube, but it’s not on a team that represents you with a sponsor supporting you every step of the way. The money is cool, but that’s not what I’m going for,” Gilliam said.

Long feels the same way. Esports may or may not be a “sport” by the traditional definition of the term, but the competitive spirit is the same.

“I want to make it to the top. I want to do it to stand on that stage and win that trophy. It’s cool to give the Wabash Valley and eBash some press, but at the end of the day? It’s the competition that drives me,” Long said.

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