THE MENTAL GAME

Nov 30, 2018

Breaking stereotypes and finding an accepting, open environment in the gaming world.

 

Words by Ray Padilla | Photos by Jacob Golden, Olivia Seidel and Ray Padilla

Junior Cody Minnick joined one other student in the library room — each bringing their own controller and headset. They connect through the application Discord and loaded up the vehicle soccer game, “Rocket League,” to add an additional player. Meanwhile Minnick connected to their Twitch channel and began streaming — beginning their practice.

The practice took place in the basement floor of the Kent Library. There I met Cody to interview him about the program in a small room with no cell service. This room houses six monitors, keyboards, mice and desktops. After the interview, he sat down at one of the computers and began playing.

Nowhere on the stream is the name Cody Minnick. Instead, listed above the cars were MinnickToWinIt [Minnick], ChrisWithaK (Holliday) and Rubik (freshman Wesley Miller). These three are players for Kent State’s esports’ “Rocket League” team. MinnickToWinIt and ChrisWithaK are among four students on the varsity team for the game.

In May, Kent State offered a community tournament featuring teams from University of Akron, Bowling Green University and surrounding high schools — starting the esports program for the school.

Since then, it has boomed with popularity and features four different varsity teams; “League of Legends,” “Hearthstone,” “Rocket League” and “Overwatch.” This semester is the first for Kent State esports.

Currently, there are over 80 varsity esports programs across the country according to ESPN. Kent State has yet to be listed with these universities. The varsity collegiate esports programs began at Robert Morris University in Illinois in 2014, and now esports programs have popped up regularly as the interest levels have spiked.

“We are still working out some of the small pieces, but I’m not worried at all,” Steve Toepfer, the director for the esports program at Kent State, says. “We have a lot of student passion and interest. We have a staff in place and this is going to be a good year.”

As new esport programs emerge, opinions of the sport come along with them. Some people believe it’s not a sport at all because the little physical activity needed. There’s still little we know about the effects it has on the players involved. In the aftermath of the tragic shooting in Jacksonville, Florida, where three players were killed and 11 wounded at a “Madden 19” tournament, the esports industry has considered tracking the stress levels the players endure while competing.

Given its appearance just four years ago at Robert Morris University, there are many aspects people still don’t understand. Some might think of this program as students just playing video games in the basement of a library for fun. Others might look at it as a dangerous environment where they are playing violent video games and damaging their mental health. It might be where they sit at computers for long periods of time, affecting their blood pressure.

Fortunately, the program at Kent State has a solution. It’s setting up a research lab to find out the truth about esports.

Enrico Gandolfi (Lazariel) is an assistant professor in Educational Technology at Kent State within the Research Center for Educational Technology, and he also plans to conduct research on the gamers involved with Kent State’s esports.

“Esports are, I would say, a very complex phenomenon,” he says. “As researchers, I think our goal, our aim right now, is to understand them better — to understand why they work, why they don’t work, to understand what they can do for good or when they can be distracting.”

Lazariel’s focus is finding out how games might be used for an educational purpose in classrooms. Although, before putting game consoles in classes, he wants to understand the positives and negatives of gaming. He it’s hard to say esports is good or it’s bad, and he believes we are in a grey area in between because there’s not enough research to prove on side or the other.

“The goal of our research branch is to look into this stuff and see what are the best practices, what really is negative,” Toepfer says. “I don’t for one second deny that this is a sedentary activity.”

He doesn’t want to ignore the stereotypes or controversial subjects related to esports. Rather, Toepfer wants to tackle them head on and find solutions or prove that the program is beneficial to students who take an interest in the gaming world.

MinnickToWinIt was selected as captain of the “Rocket League” team by Toepfer. The director felt he needed to select someone who was not necessarily the best on the team, but someone well organized and had the ability to lead a group of students. He hoped for someone like MinnickToWinIt to kickstart the team.

In the basement room of the library, I could hear only the clicking noises coming from their controllers and the sounds of strategic planning or reactions. Not much conversation was happening between them and me. They were wired in and focused on winning their practice matches.

“Close one,” “It’s fine,” “It’s going down,” “I can beat him,” “I should have caught that sooner,” “I don’t have boost,” “I’m mid,” “Nice!” “Oh my God, turn!”

These mentions only made sense because I was looking over their shoulders at the game in front of them. The ball was flying all over their screens and they used cars with attached rockets to chase it down and hit it into the opposing team’s goal.

Sporting a yellow car with blue lighting blots was MinnickToWinIt — looking for the ball and being the “playmaker,” as he called it, of the team.

He didn’t always start out as esport player though. Two and a half years ago he was introduced to Kronovi’s YouTube channel, where he would watch montage videos of “Rocket League.” The Youtuber has over 346,000 subscribers and focuses his videos only on the vehicle soccer game. After watching montage videos, MinnickToWinIt started a club called “Kent State E-sports” in January 2016, but he lost it a year later after the previous advisor had left and it was unable to find a new advisor in time.

Two varsity “Rocket League” players and one JV player practice their skills in the esports lab of the library. When playing together in person they talk to each other through the application Discord or they remove their headphones and communicate face to face.

Filter

MinnickToWinIt enjoys having a place where he can game with fellow members and friends. He says it’s much better to play in person because it helps avoid yelling. He explained how when someone plays remotely, it’s easier to yell at another teammate for a mistake; however, when that same person is in the company of others, it’s harder to show anger.

ChrisWithaK, the self-described defender of the team, described it as a filter.

“If someone messes up, you don’t really want to say, ‘dude, come on man, you gotta step it up,’” ChrisWithaK says. “It would make you feel bad about saying it. So you have to think about how you want to say it because everyone gets video game rage now and then.”

Once, when playing “Rocket League” for fun before joining the team at Kent State, he experienced a rude Twitch streamer he had just met. He played a great game and was invited by the streamer to join a couple days later. He thought nothing of it and did. While playing with the streamer he was noticeably off his game — not playing as well as he (and the streamer) had hoped.

The streamer became angry and started criticizing ChrisWithaK saying he was terrible at the game and asking what had happened to the player he saw before. After the game was finished, the streamer kicked him from Discord and was never heard from again. ChrisWithaK was ghosted from someone he didn’t even know.

“I guess people have these standards after the one thing. They uphold you to this and if you can’t fulfill that all the time, you not even needed,” ChrisWithaK says. “But, it’s just a game in the end. I think of it that way. I play for fun all the time.”

He found that playing for fun was one thing, but while playing on the esports team at Kent, he’s created a bond with his co-players and a new purpose. One of his friends found out about the program first and told ChrisWithaK to tryout because he could make the team easily. He immediately contacted MinnickToWinIt once he realized he missed the second day of qualifiers. Luckily, MinnickToWinIt told him to come down to the basement floor of the library and tryout that same day.

For the “Rocket League” team, both ChrisWithaK and MinnickToWinIt played with people who were “too emotionally involved” in games. With their team, they try to avoid it and remember it’s all just a game in the end.

Escape

Rather than chasing a ball from a rocket-powered car, Hazard [senior Shaun Anschutz] assembled his team for a new game focused on statistics and a little luck in the free-to-play online called “Hearthstone.” Captain Hazard is not new to the esports scene and worked for three years with Tempo Storm as a general writer, client relationship manager and a manager for one of its teams, Heroes of the Storm.

Before working with Tempo Storm, Hazard went to school at Youngstown State University looking to study computer engineering or computer science, but quickly understood it was much more difficult than anticipated. After leaving YSU, he joined the U.S. Navy and was stationed with the Marines as a Fleet Marine Force Hospital Corpsman and stayed for about three years until he was discharged.

“I had a very rough personal time while I was in,” Hazard says. “So I got out in 2013 with an early out — with a general under honorable conditions discharge.”

Hazard found the Navy difficult because he was serving as a gay man around the time of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal and his medical officer was a strong Republican from the south. At the same time, while in the military, he attempted suicide and sought out help shortly after — still talking to a professional to this day and feels much better. Video games have helped as well.

“[esports] makes me happy,” Hazard says. “Especially when I have a team or a set of players that I can help navigate through a series of events or mentor.”

He later described in an email conversation about how esports is open and accepting of others — one of the most liberal spaces on the internet. There are trolls, but if people look past that, they can be themselves and be involved.

Hazard believes esports created an open environment for people to be themselves, socialize and create a community with one another. He says it’s a way for some people to battle depression and it definitely helped him.

Like Hazard, varsity esports coach for “League of Legends”, XEndgamerX (Glenn McDowell) used video games to distract him from his problematic reality.

Ten years ago, XEndgamerX went through a divorce. During that time, he played “World of Warcraft” regularly.

“It was an escape from my life at the time,” XEndgamerX says. “But, it allowed me to stop thinking about that situation and actually go to sleep. It actually allowed me to rest during that and it got me through a really hard time.”

He says the game helped him recover from what happened and he felt video games were a better alternative than what most people turn to — alcohol or drugs. He’s seen the effects of alcoholism in his family before.

XEndgamerX is also a Kent State employee working as a senior military science instructor. While he doesn’t play video games as much as he would like to, he says it’s a stress reliever at times.

It shocked me to realize that this fit-military man in his 50s sitting in his office in front of me still played video games. Some of the most well known gaming YouTubers are in their 20s. Never did I picture a gamer with five children. Although, I will probably be in the same boat, playing the newest Call of Duty 30 years from now.

XEndgamerX says basically since video games were invented, he has always played. He grew up in Silicon Valley in California and used to roller skate to the arcade with a pocket full of quarters. His mother would call him “Johnny Atari.”

While at Kent, he heard “League of Legends” was played in the esports world and this game was not unfamiliar territory. The master sergeant had played it with his older cadets and approached Toepfer telling him he had a team ready and willing to play for the school.

The Program

The players, XEndgamerX and Toepfer all see this semester as a starting point for esports at Kent State and are hopeful it will continue to grow.

Toepfer says he sees a lot of “awesomeness” in the esports program and he believes the growth will be massive. With that, he sees awareness growing as well. Older generations find it hard to believe these programs are excelling and gamers have found a great deal of money within the industry.

“For this program, I think we are little behind,” Toepfer says. “But, we’re just in time to be there before everybody adopts an esports program. There’s some resistance here and there, but it’s giving way pretty fast in my estimation.”

XEndgamerX says the younger generations need the older generations’ help to make esports grow and succeed. He believes the younger generations need to push and be active for what they want for the future.

“Look to the future of what the next generations are going to actually do,” XEndgamerX says. “And really see are we stagnant or are we progressive.”

During the esports Boot Camp in September, Toepfer highlighted the four “Pillars of the Program:” community, competition, health and research. In addition, he went over the guidelines, rules and expectations — focusing on students becoming a representative of the university. He made sure to include good sportsmanship, politeness and things to refrain from saying while playing for Kent State.

“We will be the most polite gamers in the world,” Toepfer says as laughter in the room follows.

It seemed like an unrealistic expectation the director was setting, but he made sure to go over the consequences — including probation, dismissal or a loss of scholarships — just as a reminder.