When asked to identify Harvard athletes, you might think of the football team taking the field at Harvard Stadium for The Game, the men’s basketball squad suiting up at Lavietes Pavilion, or the heavyweight crew team racing down the Charles River.
A crowd of 50 people gathering in Pierce Hall 301 to play competitive video games might not be the first group that comes to mind.
Despite still being viewed as a niche activity in mainstream culture, eSports—or competitive video game competitions—are on the rise, both across the country and at Harvard.
Over the past year, eSports have gained publicity on a national scale. In August 2014, Amazon paid nearly $1 billion to acquire the video service Twitch, a website that enables viewers to watch professionals play video games in these sorts of competitions. Although ESPN president John Skipper dismissed eSports as being incomparable to “real sports,” more people watched the 2013 League of Legends World Championship (32.0 million) than did the BCS Championship (26.4) or Game 7 of the NBA Finals (26.3).
Competitive gaming is also gaining traction on college campuses. A much-discussed New York Times article published in December 2014 pointed out that some universities have begun to give athletic scholarships to students who compete in games like League of Legends and StarCraft II.
While Harvard is not quite ready to expand its list of 42 varsity sports to include video games, the gaming community is on the rise in Cambridge.
“The Harvard gaming community has grown a lot in the past few years,” said junior Tony Pietra, who is involved in the Super Smash Bros. gaming community at Harvard. “There are a lot more people playing and involved in the community than when I started as a freshmen…. I think that’s true for the gaming community not just at Harvard, but also around the world.”
BUILDING A COMMUNITY
When sophomore Andy Kim arrived on campus for his freshman year, he sought out a forum to compete in League of Legends but was surprised by the lack of a formal gaming community at Harvard.
“I assumed that since video games are so big, there would have to be a club,” Kim said. “All of my friends from home go to [University of California] schools, and a lot of people play eSports. Even BU had a gaming club. But there was no such thing at Harvard, and I was shocked. The closest thing was board games.”
Kim described the Harvard gaming community as being very splintered initially, with no unified structure. Eventually, Kim posted a message in the Harvard Class of 2017 Facebook group asking if anyone wanted to watch the League of Legends World Championships.
Kim received a response from Jason Shen, a classmate, and the two became friends. Eventually, they began to discuss ideas for making a club for League of Legends.
But the discussion did not stop there. In the fall of 2014, Kim and Shen founded the Harvard eSports Association, and they now serve as its co-presidents. The club aims to connect the disparate gaming communities on campus and has game directors for the Dota 2, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, League of Legends, StarCraft II, and Super Smash Bros. titles.
“Ever since the club was created, it has given gamers a space and a community,” Kim said. “The fact that we have an officially recognized club speaks volumes.”