Esports team brings University of Waterloo athletics into the digital age

All the games will be played in the newly formed esports league called Ontario Post-Secondary Esports (OPSE).

UW will compete in Rocket League, Overwatch and League of Legends

Mihael Mehle ''Mikyx'' is pictured as he plays the League of Legends World Championship Finals in Paris, France. (REUTERS / Johanna Geron)

Long known as a tech powerhouse, the University of Waterloo is bringing its athletics department into the digital age with the introduction of a competitive esports team.

Esports, or competitive video gaming, is not new to campus. For many years UW students have formed ad-hoc gaming clubs, but never with official support from the school's athletics department. 

In the fall, the Waterloo Warriors will field teams in three games: Rocket League, an acrobatic variation of soccer played with racecars, Overwatch and League of Legends which both pit two teams of superheroes against each other in battle. 

All the games will be played in a newly formed esports league called Ontario Post-Secondary Esports (OPSE).

OPSE commissioner James Fitzgerald told CBC that a total of 18 schools in the province will be participating this year. According to their website, $24,000 in scholarship prize money is up for grabs.

Tryouts for the Warriors began in August, where potential team members spent two days playing scrimmages against each other. According to Greg Mittler, UW's coordinator of sports clubs and camps, a second group will do the same later in September. The best players will be picked from both of those sessions, and will then compete for a spot on the team. 

Since they will be representing the University of Waterloo, it is very important that the tryouts be fair, Mittler said.

"It's a work in progress and we understand that there's going to be tweaks along the way," he said, adding that they've had positive feedback from the students so far. 

Competition stacking up

Competitive esports is a fairly new phenomenon when it comes to post-secondary athletics departments, but it's quickly gaining steam. 

The University of California at Irvine offers up to $6,000 scholarships for players on their varsity teams. Windsor's St. Clair College has 10 teams competing against other schools from across North America. They've even started a two-year Esports Administration and Entrepreneurship Program, allowing students to learn what it takes to run an esports team or event.

Mittler admitted it can be difficult going up against schools established programs and thousands of dollars in investment, but added, "I wouldn't say we can't compete with them, we just haven't had the resources yet."

UW's previous unofficial gaming clubs had teams compete in tournaments south of the border, he said.

"We've had a few teams finish in the top 10 against these juggernauts." 

COVID presents opportunity

"We realised that sports were not going to happen come fall, potentially not in winter," OPSE commissioner Fitzgerald said. 

OPSE recognised the gap, and quickly set out a game plan. Using connections at Carlton University, Fitzgerald's alma matter, they got in touch with athletic programs throughout the province and made their case.

"When you can't have that football, you can't have that hockey, you can't have those traditional sports you're used to following, it's important, especially for the students and their community to have a team to rally behind. To have that school spirit and that connection" he said.

Business end

Mittler and Fitzgerald both declined to go into specifics when it came to program funding, and possible sponsors. 

"We do have a sponsor or two in the works that we haven't made a public announcement about yet," Mittler said. 

"I don't want to dive too much into the business outlook," Fitzgerald said. Marketing opportunities exist they way they would in other leagues and "just like sports has Nike, Bauer, and CCM, video games have their equivalents."

According to ESPN, a $2.2 million prize pool was up for grabs during the 2019 League of Legends pro-level championship. 


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