The COVID-19 pandemic has sidelined most aspects of typical club sports, derailing practice schedules and throwing competitions out the window. The UMich Esports team, though, felt right at home with the switch to a virtual landscape.
The impact of the pandemic on the outside world has pushed many into the virtual space in which esports teams have traditionally resided, potentially boosting the validity of esports in the minds of some fans moving forward. This can be seen with the increase in popularity of Twitch — a platform where fans can watch professional or recreational esports online — streams during the spring and summer.
That boost in popularity has led to Michigan esports earning recreational sports status.
In its first year under the jurisdiction of Michigan’s recreational sports department, the Wolverines have still been able to power through their schedule full of practices, scrimmages and tournaments — with more yet to come. Training and competing remotely had been a staple of Michigan’s teams prior to the pandemic, ever since they lost access to their usual meeting spots when they became a recreational sport over the summer.
Those meetings used to take place at the Ross School of Business, where the team began as a student organization in 2015 under the direction of founder Tony Yuan, a former Michigan student. Now hosting teams across 10 different games — including “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” “Rocket League” and “League of Legends” — the team’s growth into a recreational sport came at the cost of their typically held rooms at Ross.
While functioning has proven easier for the Wolverines than many other club sports, teams across its 10 different games have lost the opportunity to host in-person events that drew in new players and fans.
Recruiting new members for each game occurred virtually this season, and although networking online paled in comparison to previous in-person events, Michigan was still able to draw in community members and competitive players to its Discord server.
Outside of bolstering their ranks, the Wolverines want to create an effective virtual presence. With so many teams and players to keep track of, communicating schedules and scores to fans has proven difficult.
A virtual community isn’t the only home Michigan is trying to build. In a post-pandemic world, the Wolverines want to acquire an in-person facility where teams can practice, compete and, most importantly, bond.
“It is very helpful to have a space on campus where we could go and our teams could compete in the same room and just help build that team chemistry in a way that simply speaking through Skype or a Discord voice chat doesn’t really promote,” the team’s vice president, sophomore Seth Izzard, said.
That chemistry used to be created through the team’s in-person local area network events where casual and competitive players would meet up and play a variety of games together. The ongoing pandemic forced Michigan to cease holding those meetups.
Building connections can be the deciding factor between a skilled roster and a winning team. Those communication skills and familiarities, something Michigan’s teams utilize frequently, can make a difference when facing other skilled teams.
“We’re almost like a family,” senior Ryan Foley, Rocket League director, said. “We all respect each other, we’re all really good friends, even in real life, so it makes it a lot better. (In Rocket League) maybe we’re not the best players, but we’re always one of the best teams because we have really good communication, and we enjoy playing with each other.”
In order to fund a physical home to build those relationships, the Wolverines hope to find funding through their newly-christened status as a recreational sport. Future sponsorships and budgeting will now be coordinated with University support.
In the meantime, Michigan looks forward to another perk of joining Rec Sports: Giving Blue Day. The online event, set to take place March 10, is a 24-hour donation drive where alumni, companies and community members can support Michigan student programs.
Michigan also now has automatic access to Festifall, something the team can use to its advantage when in-person recruiting events are safe again.
While stuck at its virtual home for the time being, the momentum the Wolverines have built has created feelings of pride and hope for their members. Some even look forward to a future home in the athletic department as a varsity sport, a long-term goal of the Wolverines.
“Esports viewership is skyrocketing, but it’s still not at the same level as your football, or your basketball or your soccer (games),” Izzard said. “And that has actually been helped by the COVID-19 situation because so many people are at home and the traditional sports aren’t competing at the same level.”
While future growth plays into the team’s planning, UMich Esports also wants to make its impact felt right now.
Izzard said that he hopes breaking down the stigma surrounding esports will drive improvements surrounding the team’s community events. With more resources and a permanent home, the Wolverines can show that esports is a legitimate team worthy of one day attaining varsity status.