On a Saturday afternoon in Dallas, Texas, a group of Oklahoma Sooners gather before the biggest game of their short playing careers. After a few last words of encouragement and pats on the back, the team members enter the field of play and don their headgear.
But, instead of strapping into football helmets, these Sooners wear gaming headsets. Rather than holding a football, each player grips a controller.
This is not the Red River Showdown. These students are in the Irving Convention Center, competing in the finals of the OP Live Overwatch Tournament — a competitive video gaming, or “esports,” event.
Overwatch is a video game featuring two teams of six players who choose from a variety of heroes, containing many nuanced strategies and combinations of characters.
The Sooners lost in the finals at their most recent competition, but their matches were viewed by thousands online and in-person. Esports has been steadily growing in popularity across the world, and this has led to some large tournaments being aired on ESPN internationally.
That growing popularity can be seen on OU’s campus, too. The Overwatch team is only a small subdivision of the larger eSports Association, which encourages gaming Sooners to get together and play for fun or competitively with popular games like Super Smash Brothers, Call of Duty and Overwatch.
The eSports Association at OU has more than 380 members, according to its lead adviser Mike Aguilar, and he said he expects that number to climb to about 450 members by the end of 2018.
“We knew we had to create our own ESPN for visibility. So we are,” Aguilar said, referring to the association’s growing media platform, sooneresports.org.
Esports competitions are held worldwide between the most talented players of specific games. Often, the events are held at regional levels before players move on to national and world stages.
Depending on the game, individuals or teams play against each other for opportunities at prize pools that often range from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars at the most popular events.
Bryan Climer, coach of OU’s Overwatch team and an IT employee at the university, said some universities are even offering scholarships and recruiting talent for collegiate esports.
Climer said there is a common stigma that most people are reluctant to consider playing video games a “sport” and often question why ESPN and other sports outlets cover them, but that he sees little reason to hold esports in any less esteem than traditional games.
“It does take a tremendous amount of skill,” Climer said. “Hand-eye coordination, focus, determination, the ability to think on the fly and modify your decisions.”
Players on OU’s Overwatch team hone these skills in specific drills, putting in the countless hours of practice expected of other student-athletes, Climer said.
Meteorology sophomore Ben Price said some of those drills include learning how to strategize with various game characters and watching old game film of previous tournaments. In preparation specifically for the recent tournament, he said stadium noise was also used.
“Before this tournament, Coach had us put on crowd cheering noise as we played, since OP Live was going to be on a stage,” Price said. “So we had to prepare for a vastly more difficult atmosphere than just being in our own rooms.”
Price said there are a variety of Overwatch character types — healers to keep teammates alive, tanks to absorb damage and shield more vulnerable characters, and DPS, or “damage per second,” characters who deal massive amounts of damage but are generally vulnerable.
Like a traditional sport, Climer said part of his job is to identify the strengths of his players as they experiment with the different Overwatch characters in friendly sessions. While these sessions are not traditional practices, Climer said playing for fun during off-time does help hone the team’s skills and deepen the pool of strategies they can employ in a tournament setting.
Bailey Brown, an advertising senior and news director of the eSports Association, said the team spends as many as 50 hours a week practicing.
“I built a scouting report for this event,” Climer said, referring to his lists of every other Overwatch team the OU group might face and how to best beat them.
Just as a Sooner sports team must adjust their game plan week-to-week, the Overwatch team changes strategies match-to-match to better oppose their 16 opponents at OP Live, each with individual strengths and weaknesses.
The Overwatch team also requires its members to keep up with physical activity in addition to their practices.
“They’ll go to the gym twice a week as a crew to go work out. They still don’t want that stigma of being gamers in a chair for 12 hours,” Brown said.
Climer said esports has a bigger potential to be more inclusive than traditional games.
“Esports has a definitive edge in being able to be played by a larger variety of people,” he said, referring to the esports teams that are often co-ed.
While the team may not get the recognition it is due in Climer’s eyes, the group’s members will continue to prepare and battle through their preseason, working toward events in the spring semester.
“These kids have ability and skill the likes of which I’m amazed by,” Climer said. “They’re just phenomenal students.”