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Boise State eSports is filling a gap left from COVID cancellations

Boise State's eSports Arena
Crowds are not packing the eSports arena these days because of social isolation. But Boise State’s eSports team continues to compete. Photo by Emma Thompson.

Boise State’s eSports program finds itself in a unique position. Because of its online platform, its matches, unlike traditional sports programs derailed by COVID-19, have continued this spring and will continue through the first week of May.

“Sports are gone, outside activities are gone, everyone’s running out of Netflix shows. eSports is filling the gap,” said Chris “Doc” Haskell, head eSports coach and a clinical associate professor in the Department of Educational Technology.

Since COVID-19 social distancing began, the team has streamed more than 165 hours of live competition content.

“That’s 1.2 million minutes watched,” said Haskell, “or 2.2 years in 30 days.”

Haskell estimates that around 50 students on the 60 person team are still actively participating in eSports from their homes that stretch from Washington State to Pennsylvania.

“We’re trying to keep students engaged. Some students’ lives have changed. The team provides an escape, something to work toward,” said Haskell. “We don’t want them to disconnect.”

Because team play has continued, work study students affiliated with the eSports teams have been able to keep their jobs, Haskell added.

Like so many parts of the Bronco community, eSports is pitching in to help other departments. The team hosted The Idaho Entrepreneur Challenge pitch competition in April on Twitch.

The team is celebrating other highlights.

The Idaho State Board of Education recently approved the university’s contract with Idaho Central Credit Union that will provide $250,000 per year for Boise State eSports for three years, with a four-year option. One hundred thousand dollars of that will fund scholarships each year for student players and broadcasters.

Haskell noted professional successes of team members like recent graduate Paul Vaughan. Oklahoma City University hired Vaughan as a coordinator of its eSports program.

“Many of our students are finding careers,” said Haskell. “Paul got his job because he is who he is, and because he came to Boise State. It’s seen as one of the top programs in the nation.”

Boise State places between 9th and 12th in the nation, depending on the source.

In addition, as of a few months ago, Bronco eSports began streaming content – live competitions and more – 24/7 on its Twitch channel.

“When they are not competing, we’re still broadcasting,” said Haskell. “People say they aspire to do what we’re doing. That’s helping our kids get placed in really cool places.”

From a player’s perspective

Madisyn Benge
Madisyn Benge. Photo provided by Boise State eSports.

Meet eSports player Madisyn Benge, aka N3rdyBird, currently hosting streams and plays from her home in Spokane, Washington. Benge is a senior graduating with a degree in games, interactive media and mobile (GIMM). She is interviewing for jobs as an eSports coach and is planning to get her master’s degree in Boise State’s online educational technology program.

Q. What’s your specialty on the team?

A. Overwatch (Boise State competes in Overwatch, Rocket League, League of Legends, Hearthstone, and Heroes of the Storm. Overwatch is a team-based shooter game). I love the fast pace. Compared to other games, it’s very communication- heavy. There’s so much going on and everyone has a task. You have to call out and keep everyone updated. Everyone on the team has a certain type of inventory they’re keeping track of. You’re constantly feeding information to each other.

Q. What drew you to eSports? 

I started competing before coming to Boise State. My older brother is a major league Halo player, so eSports runs in our family.

Q. What’s it like to be on the team now? How do you practice and preserve a sense of camaraderie?

A. I’m broadcasting from my childhood bedroom, but the team still has regular practices two or three times a week. We aren’t sitting next to each other, but because communication during the game is such a huge thing, we can still interact in ways we’re used to.

Q. Has anything good for you come from the isolation?

A. Being able to step back from academics and athletics. I haven’t been home for an extended time in five years. It’s nice to spend time with my family. I’m used to coming home for a few days, then heading back to Boise. I’m pushing 24, but it’s still good to be home with them in a time of turmoil.

Q. What’s been most challenging? 

A. Lots of things have been getting canceled, even for eSports. TESPA, which is like the NCAA for eSports, announced that it was suspending one of the biggest tournaments of the year. That was a bit heartbreaking for our organization because we’re trying to show that eSports can continue despite the lockdown.

Q. How is it to be a woman in pretty male-heavy realm?

A. The women on the team are used to being the odd ducks out, but we don’t want it called out, because that sets us apart. Even my own teammates have felt bad about it. They’ll make a blanket statement, like, ‘Let’s do this boys,’ and then add ‘and ladies.’ But we say, no, it’s OK. We’re bros, too. We can chill.

It’s not a sport where gender indicates where your skill will fall. We’re trailblazers, yes, but mostly we just want to show girls it’s OK to play.

Q. What do you want people to know about the team?

A. I did traditional sports for a long time. I’m used to practicing, following coaches’ direction. That carries into eSports where we practice runs and plays. It’s just like playing basketball, only in a virtual environment. We get so into it. We’re speaking a thousand miles and hour, our hearts are racing. At the end, we sit back. We’re exhausted.

One thing caught me off guard before Boise State shut down. As a team we’ve been through ‘Snowmageddon’ and other things. But this time, Doc Haskell looked at everyone and said, ‘If you need anything, let me know. If you lost your job, if you need help, let me know.’ It hammered home that Boise State eSports is a family. We jokingly call Doc Haskell our ‘eSports dad.”

– Story by Anna Webb