NEC’s esports program charges along, full of diversity, technology – and good chairs

  • NEC sophomore Noelle Julien is the captain of the junior varsity Overwatch team. She monitors the New England College esports game room at the Simon Center on the night of Nov. 14. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • NEC sophomore Noelle Julien is the captain of the junior varsity Overwatch team at the esports game room at the Simon Center on Thursday night, November 14, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • NEC sophomore Noelle Julian, captain of the junior varsity Overwatch team, cheers on a teammate during a recent match at the esports game room at the Simon Center.

  • The New England College team huddles before matches in the new esports arena at the Simon Center. The arena has 14 high-tech computer consoles connected to their own broadband network, as well as console-connected high-definition screens inside and outside the room. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Tyrelle Appleton, Esports Program Director at New England College, watches one of his players during a recent competition. Appleton says the school recruited 35 players for teams this year and has around 125 students playing on club teams.

Monitor staff
Published: 12/1/2019 6:49:08 PM

College esports teams might be a new thing, but a lot of it seems pretty familiar, including parents cheering from the sidelines.

Except in this case, the sidelines might be 100 miles away.

“Oh, yes, my dad watches the matches. He types in, lets me know he’s watching,” said Noelle Julian, captain of the junior varsity team at New England College playing the multi-player game Overwatch.

Her father isn’t watching from inside the esports arena in the school’s Simon Center, and not just because there’s nowhere for spectators to sit. He might be back in Julian’s home state of Connecticut, watching over the school’s channel on Twitch, the incredibly popular channel for streaming video gamers.

“Anyone around the world can watch NEC,” said Humberto Solis, a business management major. Solis was monitoring the Twitch channel on a recent Thursday when the Monitor came to check out the area’s newest sports league, which explains why a puzzled man with a reporter’s notebook showed up for a few seconds on the school feed, peering into a webcam.

Esports is the general term for multiplayer online game competitions, which are a multi-billion-dollar business worldwide. New England College is one of several schools in the region that have started up esports teams and clubs, seeing it as a way to lure students in an increasingly tight market and a way to provide new levels of experience and education for the always-online generation.

“I came to the school for the education department. I got an email one day saying they’re doing tryouts and I thought, that sounds like my kind of people!” said Julian, a sophomore majoring in elementary education.

NEC’s esports push drew attention a year ago when they hired Tyrelle Appleton, 26, to coach the esports teams and launch the program. The school now has teams and club groups playing science-fiction and superhero-related games like Fortnite, Overwatch, League of Legends and Super Smash Brothers, plus ever-more-realistic reenactments of physical sports through games like Madden NFL and NBA.

New England College is part of the Eastern College Athletic Conference’s Esports program, which now has 57 schools and more than 250 teams, and plays regular matches at the variety and JV level. They’re mostly online but occasionally in person, such as at the Granite State Comicon or a recent competition at Rivier College in Nashua. Matches take about two hours each, depending on the game, with players often rotating in and out.

Appleton is proud of the arena that the school built on the third floor of the Simon Center, which has 14 high-tech computer consoles connected to their own broadband network.

“Our ping is amazing! It helps our latency,” said Appleton in a fit of enthusiasm about the internet connection. The arena also includes console-connected high-definition screens inside and outside the room, and it hosts competitions several nights a week as well as hours of practice time, almost every day.

Appleton says the school recruited 35 players for teams this year and has around 125 people in the clubs.

One surprising benefit of the program is that it has more ethnic diversity than might be expected at a small, rural New Hampshire college. That is at least partly a reflection of Appleton, who is black.

“I’m probably one of the leading African-American players in esports,” said Appleton, who also has an MBA.

Asked about diversity, Appleton estimated that close to half of the program is non-white.

“I’m trying to push the need for diversity and inclusiveness. We could do better,” he said.

Where could they do better? Gender diversity, which has long been a problem in computer gaming, like computer science in general. Appleton said there are perhaps a dozen girls in the club and teams, or under 10% of the total.

Once the games started, the camaraderie became obvious. And that is when esports began to sound and feel just like every other team sport.

The meet started with a team huddle and pep talk from Appleton and then a group cheer, before it broke up into different games, awaiting the competition. By 9 p.m the action against teams from distant schools was going fast and furious on screens all over the place. It quickly became bewildering to the outsider, as several different games were being played at once with team members scattered around the room talking through their headsets or, often, shouting directions and advice out loud.

“Left side – behind you, behind you, behind you, behind you!”

“Keep healing, keep healing!” (Some characters in many games can increase the health of their teammates.)

“Wait – we can give them a little bit of room.”

“Look out, look out!”

“Oh no, I killed myself with a rock!”

All of this might sound odd, but no more than sideline chatter during football games or shouts from fans in the Fenway bleachers. Which emphasizes a point that gamers like to make: The sports part of “esports” isn’t misleading.

“I know the older generation thinks we’re just wasting our time, but we put in just as much time as normal – quote-unquote – sports,” said Julian. “We do hours of practice, and before contests … we look at the competition. We look at skill rating – look at VODs (video on demand) of previous matches, what their playing style is, what characters they play – we get as much information as we can from scouting.”

All in all, she said, it’s very similar to the playground sports everybody knows about. With, perhaps, one exception.

“Chairs,” she said. “Chairs are very, very important. When you’re sitting for two hours, you need good back support.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


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