In its four years of existence, the Elon University eSports team has grown from a small, inexperienced club to an organization soon participating in the largest East Coast collegiate gaming competition to date.
Elon’s team, along with 13 other schools in the Carolina Collegiate eSports Committee (CCEC), will have a chance to make a name for themselves at Clash of the Carolinas, a two-day gaming tournament to be held January 16-17.
Teams from each CCEC college, including Elon, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Clemson University and Duke University, will participate in tournaments for the games League of Legends, Hearthstone, Counterstrike: Global Offensive and Super Smash Brothers Melee. Admission to the event at North Carolina State University’s Talley Student Center is free, but donations are encouraged.
The projected number of event-goers dwarfs past collegiate eSports events in the region, according to CCEC founder Ryan Griffin.
“We’re expecting 2,000 to 3,000 people to come, which is pretty substantial for an event just planned by collegiate organizers that have never done anything at this scale before,” Griffin said.
Although they each have experience running smaller tournaments at their own schools as eSports presidents, something of this scale is unprecedented for the event’s organizers. Senior Zach Wellman, Elon’s eSports president and one of those organizers, said they are fully aware of the challenges of handling a large-scale inaugural event, but will use that as a learning experience for future tournaments.
“The inaugural event will be shaky and stressful, and the 12 of us [organizers] will be running around like madmen trying to make sure every single station is good to go and that all of our teams are doing well,” Wellman said.
Aside from the event’s projected record-setting numbers, another aspect setting it apart is its partnership with Operation Supply Drop (OSD), a non-profit that sends video games to enlisted United States soldiers and helps connect veterans to both casual and competitive gaming events. Three military bases connected with OSD are expected to compete in the tournaments.
“Out of nowhere Operation Supply Drop said, ‘We will support everything you want to do as long as you put it in our name and donations go to us,’” Wellman said. “They’re hoping we find more sponsors to help a little bit, but right now things are looking good. We’ll have around four to six live streams of the tournaments, so it’s a good marketing opportunity.”
Creating Clash of the Carolinas
The origins of Clash of the Carolinas date back to the spring, around the time Griffin took over as President of UNC Chapel Hill’s eSports organization.
Local gaming events and tournaments were being held throughout the Carolinas as always, but university eSports clubs weren’t reaching out to each other for possible multi-game tournament opportunities. A CCEC tournament happened earlier that year, but a lack of major sponsors and general awareness didn’t generate much interactivity among Carolina eSports organizations, according to Clash of the Carolinas’ marketing director Ross Ledford.
After spending time with fellow members of the collegiate eSports network TeSPA on a retreat, Griffin realized other team presidents from the CCEC were itching for a more expansive competitive opportunity as collegiate eSports continued its rise in popularity. Griffin decided to begin connecting all of CCEC’s schools for a legitimate large-scale event.
“I contacted every school I could reasonably find on Facebook or find contacts to send emails to, and I just tried to say, ‘Hey, we’re having this event, do you want to be involved in bringing a team or also help run the event?’” Griffin said. “I then brought us all together and said, ‘I’m interested in doing this to see who’s the best in the Carolinas.’”
In total, 14 schools will be represented across North and South Carolina, but spots are open for one or two more.
The next step for Clash of the Carolina’s invention was getting a major sponsor. Luckily, a perfect opportunity dropped right into CCEC’s lap. OSD was already working with Griffin about a partnership with UNC Chapel Hill eSports at the time, so he decided to make them a more substantial offer.
“I said to them, ‘How about I make you a bigger deal instead of just partnering with UNC E-Sports?’” Griffin said. “Then when I gave them the details, they wanted to open up the possibility of this being an annual thing.”
If the inaugural event proves successful and OSD and CCEC are committed to Clash of the Carolinas for the long term, future iterations of the event could be housed in a larger venue like Raleigh’s Red Hat Ampitheater, Griffin said.
Elon eSports’ opportunity
Elon’s eSports team is small when compared to other universities participating in the tournaments. Because of the lack of members, it won’t be competing in the Counterstrike: Global Offensive tournament because there would be too much overlap with its participants in other games.
But Wellman said he thinks the Elon eSports team has a shot at going far in two of the tournaments. He said the recent addition of two highly ranked players to the League of Legends team gives them a chance to compete with the other universities, and Elon’s crop of Super Smash Bros. Melee players impressed in the campus-wide fall Smash Bros. tournament, he added.
“When I was watching the finals [of the fall Smash Bros. tournament], I got mad watching the inputs and combos these guys were pulling off, because they were so good,” Wellman said. “They’re doing really advanced techniques and getting maximum output with minimum inputs.”
The eSports team will also try and make transportation options available for anyone who wants to go as a spectator or participate in friendly matches, according to Wellman, and free lodging for the schools participating also makes overnight stays easy to arrange.
Regardless of Elon’s turnout and finishes, Wellman said the experience gained at the tournament will benefit the teams in the long run.
“All of our teams have been looking forward to having a method of where they can play against other colleges rather than this very informal, non-personal way most of our tournaments lead to,” Wellman said. “In most of the tournaments we don’t even talk to them until the day of and maybe a scrimmage after, so this will be a good change from that.”
Gaming in the Carolinas and beyond
Griffin said the three biggest states in terms of eSports clubs and participants are Texas, California and North Carolina. While Texas and California have large populations and multiple big-market cities to thank for their high gaming turnouts, North Carolina’s standing is a bit more surprising.
“It really is kind of surprising to me that we’re such a hotbed of eSports and no one has really noticed that,” he said. “And we don’t really have any events out here, all of the events in the South happen in Texas or Florida or Georgia, and we kind of get overlooked even though we have such a big population that plays video games.”
High participation at the collegiate level of eSports is helping bolster North Carolina’s numbers, with the CCEC being one of the few regional collegiate gaming committees in the United States. While Elon isn’t necessarily fronting that trend, it’s doing much better than it was years ago, according to Wellman.
“At the time we played Starcraft competitively, but for the most part we were thinking, ‘Oh, just sign up for tournaments, it’s nothing to worry about, we have a good player,’” Wellman said. “But that’s not how it works on a bigger stage. So we’ve taken the organization to a place where it has a yearly budget, gaming computers and standardized practices.”
Elon’s eSports story is similar to other clubs nationwide, according to Ledford. He said collegiate eSports is growing every year, but could become something that gets mainstream recognition if the competitive process begins earlier for gamers.
“I think if we really want collegiate eSports to be something on par with what they have in Korea, we actually have to start implementing clubs at the high school level, which is one of my main goals later on in my eSports career,” Ledford said. “By the time you get into college, you’re around 18 to 20 years old, and that’s when you’re right at the prime gaming age, so if you start that late there’s a chance you might not be able to do much competitively.”
Griffin said Clash of the Carolinas will help highlight the trend, adding that the sport will only get bigger and more connected over time.
“Somebody had to start the NCAA, right?” Griffin said.