Wildcat gamers ask for a little respect — and club status

By Yushun Wang

Getting video games recognized as a Northwestern “club sport” might be harder than reaching the Challenger tier in League of Legends.

Last week James Yoon, the president of Northwestern University’s eSports group, met with the athletics department to see about upgrading from a “registered student organization” to this next level.

His long-term dream is a varsity program. “It’s still too early for that in my mind,” he said.

For now, the first step is getting a travel budget so players can compete against other universities.

Based on statistics from the Collegiate StarLeague, more than 700 schools and 10,000 student players participate at the college level.

“I think eSports is ready to be considered as a club sport here at Northwestern, and this is the time, compared to any other time, to make this happen,” said Yoon.

But he could be facing a daunting challenge.

Currently, not a single member of the Big Ten has a recognized eSports program.

According to Northwestern’s recreation director Dan Bulfin, among over 500 student organizations on campus, only 34 are official club sports, which are allowed to use gymnasiums for large events and are given greater infrastructure for intercollegiate events. The 34 include baseball, basketball, soccer and fencing, which Bulfin identified as “physical sports with skills.”

The university set the quota in 1996 because of budget and space limitations, said Bulfin. Since then, only one club, women’s water polo,  has dropped out; the triathlon club replaced it. Today eight groups, including table tennis, golf and softball but not including eSports, sit on the waiting list.

The university also prohibits using its facilities and the Northwestern trademark for business purposes. eSports could run afoul of the rule if the team uses anything related to the Wildcats, said Bulfin.  “[They need] to prove it’s providing fun rather than promoting any business product.”

It’s tricky for the group to find an acceptable name.

“Currently we cannot say that we are the Northwestern University League [of Legends] team,” said Jack Chen, one of five starting players. “The school doesn’t want us to do that.”

The Wildcats group includes three competitive teams: League of Legends, Smash and Hearthstone. But none can use “Northwestern” in online tournaments. Instead, they’re called the Deadliest Dong NA, after team captain Robert Dong.

Currently, the League of Legends team is battling for the Collegiate StarLeague championship against more than 100 U.S. universities in Division 1, the top division. The Wildcats are ranked second in the East 8 group, which also includes Carleton College and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

The 100-member group – one of 500 registered student organizations at Northwestern — meets every Saturday from 2 to 5 p.m. Players received permission to use a lecture hall with a big screen in the Technological Institute Building to livestream games and scrimmages. They also got the OK to distribute flyers and posters in the Norris University Center to recruit more members, said the group’s vice president Nicholas Au-Yeung, a junior chemical engineering student. About 15 people practice regularly each week, he added.

Bulfin also promised Yoon and his eSports group that he will reach out to the school’s athletics marketing people to see if they could help promote the game.

“One idea is to do a 20-minute game demonstration during the basketball intermission,” Bulfin said. “Once they can demonstrate the student’s interest, then they can suggest and request to rent the basketball stadium for a weekend, charging admission for spectators to come, and an eSports competition could be held that way.”

Besides seeking club status, Yoon is reaching out to some stars of the game, asking them to be visiting players on the Northwestern campus.

Yoon said he has already connected with Patrick Noonan, assistant professor of Japanese literature and culture at Northwestern, who may want to offer a history of gaming class.

Five universities – Robert Morris, College College, University of Pikeville, Maryville University and Southwestern University – now offer scholarships for their students to play video games. According to Jose Espin, the program manager at pioneering Robert Morris, his school has given partial scholarships to 50 students since 2014.

“It’s good to know that there are precedents set by other universities,” said Yoon.

Video gaming is certainly popular with the masses. Last year 36 million people viewed the League of Legends World Championship final — the same number who watched the Academy Awards.

Photo at top: Northwestern’s League of Legends team practices in the Tech Building. (Yushun Wang/MEDILL)