Chantay Brown & Joseph Kasko

(Rock Hill, S.C.) — Winthrop University has joined the growing number of schools to host a varsity esports program.

Esports, which is competitive video gaming, has grown in popularity in recent years with international tournaments, millions of viewers worldwide and millions of dollars in prize money.

Josh Sides, the head coach of Winthrop’s esports team, appeared on the Palmetto Report to discuss the new program. Sides is also a founding member of an advisory committee for the National Association of Esports Coaches and Directors.

The collegiate esports trend began in 2014 when Robert Morris University in Illinois announced plans for a scholarship program centered around the popular game League of Legends.

As of February, there were roughly 125 colleges in the U.S. that have an esports program, including five schools in South Carolina.

“It’s definitely getting more popular in the U.S. It’s definitely more popular in Korea or China, but it’s seeing a lot of popularity in the U.S. over the last couple of years,” said Sides.

He said a recent study found esports is the leading spectator sport for people age 16-22.

There is also talk about an effort to create a players association, similar to unions for players in major league baseball or the NFL, for professional esports players.

“There are many different titles you can compete in for esports, one of the most popular ones (include) League of Legends, Overwatch, Fortnite,” said Sides.

“It’s team versus team, player versus player. I know a lot of people think about it as like the old arcade style video games and stuff like that. Well no, this is six on six, five on five,” he said. “This is players in specialized positions, specializing in specific games to play against each other.”

Thus, Sides said esports players possess many of the same characteristics, such as superior quickness and eye-hand coordination, as conventional athletes.

The program is relatively inexpensive for Winthrop to maintain, Sides said, especially when compared to other sports, which makes the program a good investment that can be used to attract more students.

“The funding and stuff like that is scalable. It’s not something that travels a lot. The equipment is not super expensive,” he said, because the only equipment students need is a PC, keyboard, headset and mouse.

Winthrop has 12 players who receive a partial scholarship and compete nationally in League of Legends and Overwatch.

“Some of the more competitive schools are the ones that do get full ride (scholarships). We don’t get full rides, our scholarships vary, but I think that is something that we would like to push for obviously,” said Sides.

The Winthrop esports team competed in its first tournament Sept. 19 at the Harrisburg University Esports (HUE) Invitational in Pennsylvania.

Sides said the event is one of the bigger tournaments in collegiate esports, comparable to a college basketball tournament like the Maui Invitational.

“The best teams are invited out and they come and they compete,” he said.

The Eagles advanced to the quarterfinal round in both Overwatch and League of Legends before being eliminated.

Sides said he was pleased with his team’s performance in its first tournament.

“Overall, I think the team exceeded a lot of people’s expectations for a first-year program,” said Sides. “We made a great first impression and showed that we are a team that has to be taken seriously.”