By Yifan Wu
Wearing a varsity sweatshirt and blue jeans, Samer Bassam looks like an average college freshman. Like most 18-year-olds new to campus, he plays video games after his classes. Unlike other students, Bassam broadcasts his gameplay as the most visible face of Robert Morris University’s e-sports program.
Bassam turned down admission to Northwestern University to play on the varsity “Dota 2” team at Robert Morris in Chicago, one of the first U.S.schools offering athletic scholarships in e-sports. Every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, e-sports viewers can find Bassam play “Dota 2” on Twitch, a video content streaming platform. Hundreds follow Robert Morris’ channel to receive notifications minutes before the stream goes live.
Since its launch in 2011, Twitch has become a popular hub for video game enthusiasts to watch others play. As the e-sports industry grew, many professional players and organizations turned to the Amazon subsidiary to interact with their fans.
Twitch channels generate revenue from advertising, monthly subscriptions and donations, while some broadcasters apply for Twitch partnerships and, depending on their popularity, collect monthly paychecks from the company.
Robert Morris players have been active on the school’s channel since the e-sports program started in 2014. They streamed several “League of Legends” matches leading up to Robert Morris’ runner-up finish at the Collegiate Starleague tournament. In 2016, Robert Morris signed on to be one of 17,000 Twitch partners and adopted new graphic designs for its channel.
“Streaming on Twitch, it helps our players develop their career and get ready for what comes after college,” said Jose Espin, Robert Morris’ e-sports program coordinator. “It helps them get more exposure and build a large following.”
Many college e-sports athletes plan to pursue professional careers with six-figure salaries and seven-figure tournament prizes. Bassam, a computer science major, hopes that his consistent Twitch presence helps him secure a spot on a professional team after graduation. He says it is similar to how his classmates need to build portfolios for job applications.
“I wanted to come to RMU because I get to play ‘Dota 2’ and don’t have to worry about expensive tuition at Northwestern,” Bassam said. “I want to compete after college. Having these people watching me play really helps. The pro teams will be looking at what kind of following I have already.”
Competitive gaming is not governed by the NCAA or the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the league where Robert Morris’ varsity athletics teams compete. The unique nature of e-sports programs allows athletes to earn prize money in tournaments, and grants fans much more accessibility. Gaming enthusiasts can watch “Dota 2” streams for hours, while most college football program don’t live stream weekly practices.
The built-in audience population is already huge. At one point in December, more than one million players logged in to play “Dota 2,” according to Steam, a PC gaming platform. Riot Gaming, the developer of “League of Legends,” boasted about having more than 100 million monthly active players last June. Understanding what viewers want is the first step for that number to translate into channel popularity.
Andruid Kerne, a computer science and engineering professor at Texas A&M University and the director of the school’s interface ecology lab, said that humor and interaction are the keys to a successful Twitch channel.
“We found that while spectating is a significant live-streaming activity, many streams focus not on the highest level of play, but on social engagement and community building,” Kerne and his two colleagues wrote in a study about Twitch.
When Bassam’s followers asked to see him stream online chess matches, he tried it and ended up with more viewers. But Bassam wants to build his stream around what he does best.
“People want to watch good players play and get better by learning,” he said. “By watching someone like me play, they learn about strategies and moves that never occurred to them.”