An armor-clad polar bear roams through the jungle with a small wolf for company, searching a clearing for frogs and dragons to slay. In the distance, the sounds of battle echo across the sky as a crossbow-wielding rat wages war against an innocent-looking teenager, each fighting with the support of their legions.
The polar bear’s movements are accompanied by the rapid clicking of a mouse and keyboard, about seven clicks every second. The clicks bring back the real world, where the polar bear is Augustana freshman Dillon Cassady in a headset.
This world may seem fantastical, but it is very real for a group of Augustana students who have made the fantasy world of the video game League of Legends their careers.
The Augustana esports team completed its first season in the program’s history in early March. Coached by Jake Mahowald, the team’s program director, the Augustana League of Legends varsity team competed in the RSAA Collegiate National Tournament weekly from Jan. 23 to March 6.
Esports, short for electronic sports, is organized, competitive video gaming, or gaming in an organized team setting. Esports is one of the world’s fastest growing sports. The 2020 League of Legends World Championship brought in 3.8 million viewers. The number of viewers increased to 5.1 million in 2022.
According to the National Association of Collegiate Esports, there were fewer than 100 schools with active esports programs in 2018. Just five years later, though, over 170 schools and 5,000 student athletes participate in varsity esports.
Cassady, one of the eight members of Augustana’s League of Legends team, narrates his own gameplay while his fingers glide effortlessly over the keyboard on a casual Thursday afternoon.
“Gosh, that’s disgusting,” Cassady said, watching his rat teammate shoot down his opponent, appreciating the work of an online teammate he’ll never meet again.
League of Legends involves two teams of five facing off against each other, each with the goal of pushing back their enemies and destroying the other team’s crystal. Cassady related the gameplay to a game of capture the flag. Each player chooses an avatar, which embodies different strengths that they can use strategically to help their team win.
Cassady has been playing League of Legends since seventh grade, when his brother Nate first taught him how to play. Some of his teammates are newer to the game. Freshman Joshua Gabel and junior Elizabeth Trygstad both started playing in 2020. Three years later, they’re all collegiate athletes.
Cassady is a collegiate athlete in a brand-new realm of sports, one where he is currently hampered by the unpredictability of the Wi-Fi of Stavig Hall while competing for Augustana.
Augustana University Esports was established in 2022 but didn’t have any athletes until the start of this semester.
Cassady had no idea he would be competing collegiately when he arrived at Augustana last fall. He said that he met Mahowald at the fall activities fair, where their shared love of gaming led him to join the League of Legends team. Gabel also didn’t find out about the esports team until after he had arrived on campus, but he jumped at the opportunity to join the team.
Trygstad said one of the things that drew them into competitive esports was the ability to meet and compete against friends.
“Dillon and Josh and [Jiachen] Tu — they’re great people,” Trygstad said.
Cassady said he thought the appeal of esports was connecting to a broad variety of players.
“We want to cater to that whole realm of students,” Cassady said. “A lot of people just play video games. That’s their thing, and it’s just a way to get them involved.”
Although it may seem less physically challenging than traditional collegiate sports, Cassady said the time commitment in esports is the same as physical sports.
“I think it’s very, very similar to being in the NBA or the MLB,” Cassady said. “It’s a lot of practicing. It’s a lot of time commitment. It’s hard.”
Cassady said that during the League of Legends season, which occurs over seven weeks from January to March, he would play two or three matches a day on his own, with each taking about 30 to 40 minutes. He would also play in a three-hour team practice every Wednesday night. Overall, Cassady sunk about two to three hours into practice daily.
According to Trygstad, the League of Legends team did not win any games this season, but their losses shouldn’t deter the team from competing in the future. They said every new team goes through a period of struggle, no matter what sport they’re a part of.
According to Gabel, the team was able to find positives to focus on for the future, even through its struggles this year.
“It’s like a high school football team going against a Division I collegiate football team,” Gabel said. “It’s rough, but you learn a lot about the sport and just all the aspects about it. I really enjoyed it.”
The esports team plans to join the Midwest Esports Conference next year to compete in regional tournaments, where they would join programs from schools such as the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Purdue University Northwest.
Cassady smiled in excitement as he discussed the program’s future. He said that in the next couple years, Mahowald hopes to be able to add more varsity games, such as Rocket League, Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Rainbow Six: Siege, to the esports program. Mahowald also plans to be able to provide scholarships to student-athletes in the next two years and to add a computer lab in the Fryxell Humanities building for the team to compete in.
Trygstad said the additions will be a huge boost for the team after playing their games in East Hall this year. They said they had to worry about making too much noise while communicating with teammates in the heat of the moment, as well as the internet lagging or losing connection. Such disadvantages sometimes caused the team to lose competitive matches.
“I remember one time I was about to be in a huge team fight,” Trygstad said. “I lagged out. We lost.”
Trygstad was also excited about what the future could hold for the program. They said the team has a discord server that students can join to discuss esports and to be a part of a larger gaming community on campus.
Cassady said he believes that esports will continue to grow, both at Augustana and globally.
“I think there will for sure be a day where esports is outright bigger than normal sports,” Cassady said. “It’s still very, very new and rapidly growing, and I think that in 10 to 15 years, it’ll be as big, if not bigger, than normal sports.”