LAC LA BICHE - Portage College Athletics Director Nate Bedford hasn't played a video game in a long time — so starting up and electronic-sports (Esports) team is a new challenge.
"I don't know a lot about the games," Bedford said, referencing with a laugh an original Nintendo game from 30 years ago as his last time with a controller. "I played Duck Hunt, that was the last game I played."
Fast-forward a few decades and several advancements in console and gaming technology, and Portage is one of eight post-secondary schools across the province competing in a fledgling Esports league. The Esports division is expected to become part of the Alberta Colleges Athletics Conference (ACAC) that currently houses hockey, golf, curling and soccer teams. Portage so far has one player, student Andrew Watson, registered for the E-team.
Watson was using the tag name Tapout420 in the first 'games' for the league last Saturday in a virtual competition playing the Nintendo game Smash Bros. against his opponents. The game features characters from the Nintendo gaming empire — including Donkey Kong, Zelda, Mario, Pokemon . . . and even Duck Hunt — battling on screen, attempting to knock their opponent off a wide variety of stages.
Saturday's opening tournament had a roster of more than 30 student gamers from across the province who took part in a round-robin style tournament to crown a winner.
Lakeland This Week will have an update on the tournament from Watson in next week's edition. An online update from the tournament will be available at www.lakelandtoday.ca.
Bedford says the opening tournament has been as much of a learning experience for players as league organizers.
"We are in a bit of a trial mode — all of us," says Bedford, explaining that most athletics directors are in the same boat. "There isn't many — if any of us — who really know what happens on an E-sport game day."
What college officials do know, however, is that the Esport industry is massive. It is an area where current and future students could find new streams for scholarship funding and even livelihoods. Bedford said the Esport idea has been floating around the provincial college scene for a few years, with more and more students asking about the activity when they are selecting where they want to go to school.
"One of the last big Esport world championships was watched by more people than the Superbowl," said Bedford, referencing the 2018 League of Legends World Championship Finals held in South Korea that saw 100 million unique viewers watch online. The NFL Superbowl that year was said to have an audience of 98 million.
While some may argue the validity of video games as part of the sports world — or the education system — Bedford and college officials from around the world say Esports presents an additional opportunity to draw more students towards higher learning.
"Having a team helps Portage to build on what it already has. This can give more opportunities for sponsorships and student recruitment ... the benefits are endless," he said.
The Esports concept is also a good fit for smaller, more rural colleges like Portage, said Bedford, explaining that not only does it help to highlight the school on the very competitive post-secondary map, but it also draws the wide-reaching college campus locations together.
"Our campus locations are spread out, and this can definitely bring us together. We could have an Esports team that has representative from each of our campus locations — bringing them together for this give more of a sense of community at Portage."
Esport enthusiasts wanting to join the Portage team can contact the college's athletics department. When asked how team members will be selected, or how 'tryouts' for this team would look, Bedford laughed, and said that will be another part of the learning curve that staff will have to go through.
"We still have a lot to learn — but this is a great opportunity for us to be part of," he said.
Esport teams from Briercrest College, Concordia, Grande Prairie Regional College, Keyano College, King's University, Lakeland College, Lethbridge College, Medicine Hat College, NAIT, Olds College, Prairie College, Red Deer College, SAIT, St. Mary's University, and Augustana join Portage in the new league. Bedford said sports directors and officials from each school are meeting regularly to learn more about the program. ACAC schools are also using the expertise of an Esports company to help. He says the buy-in and support from all ACAC locations is very encouraging.
With more learning to come, Bedford, who is 100 per cent behind the Esports idea, says the first hurdle was the biggest to overcome.
"The first step is accomplished — we've sold the idea of Esports gaming to athletic directors who know all about sports," he said.
An official name and logo is in the works for the Portage Esports team.
Watch the event
A virtual recap of the tournament is available at the TwitchTV streaming site.