Monday, September 25, 2023

Local gamers unite even when separated

Social distancing doesn’t stop Alex Wang from participating in esports. (Photo by Helen’s Photography)

If you’re like Alex Wang, you spent the bulk of your childhood and teenage years playing video games. You owned every gaming console, from Nintendo to Xbox, PlayStation, and everything in between, and you enjoyed beating all challengers. To this day, you humbly brag that you’ve mastered each game you’ve touched — sometimes in as little as a few hours.

Yet, no matter how good you got, your parents argued it was all a massive waste of time.

“I remember my parents not being very supportive of it at all,” said Wang, now 23 and a student at University of North Texas in Denton. He currently lives near the border of Lewisville and Flower Mound. “I came from a very traditional Asian home where it was all about academics and finishing college. My parents figured [games] were a waste of time. They said, ‘do you actually think you’re going to get a job playing video games?’”

The funny thing is, that’s exactly what Wang did. After managing a few gamer teams in high school and competing in online tournaments, he left college in New York and moved to Texas to work for Infinite Esports & Entertainment in Frisco. At the time, the company was a major player in the video game industry, and esports — a form of competitive, multiplayer video game competitions — had already earned global attention among professional fanatics eager to take their game to the next level. When that company was sold in 2019, Wang quickly pivoted and went back to school at UNT, where he now manages the Rocket League team for the UNT Gaming and Esports program.

“I actually joked with my mom and said, ‘Do you remember when you said I wouldn’t get a job playing video games?’” Wang said with a laugh. “Now, they are both bought-in. They watch all the games when they can.”

As high school athletics came to an abrupt close this school year due to the coronavirus crisis, and professional sports leagues such as the NBA, MLB, and NHL continue to be stuck in a weird state of limbo, the multimillion-dollar world of esports is thriving.

Granted, competitive gaming has been around for as long as video games themselves. But rather than being limited to playing by yourself or against someone in the same room as you, esports allows you to play games like Overwatch, Call of Duty, Dota 2, Rocket League, Madden, and Hearthstone online against anyone — anywhere.

Recent statistics state that the global esports audience grew to roughly 453 million worldwide in 2019. Last year also saw the industry surpass the billion-dollar revenue mark. And it’s showing no signs of slowing down, even as leagues temporarily switch to online-only formats due to COVID-19.

Professional gamers have rabid fanbases and sponsorships. They also wear team jerseys and regularly compete for cash prizes. The phenomenon is so big that many high schools, including a few here in Denton County, have their own esports varsity teams — complete with full-fledged tryouts and practices.

“It’s a big deal. You can actually letter in esports,” said a spokesperson from Simplicity Esports in Highland Village.

Several Guyer High School students recently reached out to Simplicity Esports, a gaming lounge franchise located in The Shops at Highland Village, to see if they could use the facility for practices and tryouts. The center, currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, plans on hosting video game tournaments and birthday parties. Just a few of its amenities include 17 Xbox stations, 15 gaming PCs, 43-inch TVs with plush recliners, and a 140-inch drop-down projector.

“A lot of people are really excited, so when we open back up, we expect a ton of demand. It’s a fun place for kids to come, hang out, and game socially.”

The growth and excitement doesn’t stop there.

Universities like UNT have strongly invested in the growth of esports through its recreation sports department and have a public facility called the NEST where students can game for free on high-end PC and console set-ups for up to four hours a day. They also built the Eyrie, a performance facility for their four varsity esports teams. The university pledged $20,000 in scholarships for those teams to compete on behalf of the university against hundreds of universities across North America.

“I could always see the popularity of it and being able to make a career out of it,” Wang said. “I came to Texas specifically for my love for video games, and it made sense for me to come to help this program out at UNT. A lot of what I do is similar to a team mom. I look out for the mental wellbeing of each player and also handle things like scheduling, scholarship requirements, and logistics. People debate whether or not it’s a sport. The physical side isn’t there, but it’s still competition, and there’s a lot that goes into making sure you are ready.”

Dylan Wray agreed. Wray has been UNT’s Esports Coordinator since the program’s inception two years ago. He said it’s been fascinating to watch the video game world change as much as it has, and he added that it all boils down to three factors. The first is that gaming is widely accessible, making it possible for millions of people to play. Secondly, games are easy to understand at a glance but have deep strategic or mechanical depth like a traditional sport. And third, they’re social — regardless of the environment. Whether you’re on a team of three or six, esports players can connect with friends and family no matter where they are.

Being able to do something like that is huge in today’s social distancing environment.

“When I went to college 10 years ago, it was a much different gaming experience where you’d be huddled around a coffee table with friends or playing by yourself in a basement,” Wray said. “It’s crazy to see what it has become, and it’s just like any sport. If you want to appreciate it or understand it, you have to put the time into it.”

Wray was just like Wang when he was younger in that he saw himself making video games a career. It wasn’t until he moved from Colorado to Texas with his wife that he had that opportunity.

“Her receptionist laughed one day and said, ‘Can you believe they are hiring a manager at UNT for video games?’” Wray said. “My wife immediately thought, ‘Okay, I’d better tell Dylan about this.’ It’s been a crazy journey, but I’m so thankful for this university, these talented students, and the team I get to work with. It has made this job so much fun and rewarding.”

As for Wang, he can’t imagine doing anything different. The gaming world has taken off — exactly as he pictured all those years ago. And it has led to a pretty healthy career.

“My parents were out to dinner one time, and they were watching it on television. I have a picture of my mom, and it’s fun to laugh at,” Wang said. “Leagues are opening all the time, and people want to be a part of it. I’ve been able to make a lot of new friends with people who have a similar passion. We might not be able to sit together and socialize right now, but we can still play. It’s exciting to see it all grow.”

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