The New Student Athlete

LAN parties are eSports-centered gatherings, in festive settings, where players set up a local network, connect with one another, and then compete.

“It was me and three other girls, and I was like: ‘Wow, I did not expect this to happen,’” says David Y. Jeong ’17, a game director of the Harvard eSports Association. He is talking, of course, about a four-player “Super Smash Bros.” game he played on a Nintendo Wii at his club’s first LAN (local area network) party of the year. 

For the uninitiated (a group I would have fallen into just last week), eSports is, essentially, professional video-gaming—a way for gamers at the highest level to compete with one another for status, and oftentimes for money, both on the Internet and in large viewing venues across the globe. LAN parties are eSports-centered gatherings, in festive settings, where players set up a local network, connect with one another, and then compete.
According to the club’s co-President, Andy Kim ’17, the Harvard eSports Association, which was started last spring to connect a series of disparate Harvard gaming communities, has three central principles: promoting the social aspects of gaming, entering high-level eSport competitions, and destigmatizing the video-game world at college. This message seems to resonate with the student body. After all, in less than a year, the club’s two co-Presidents, Kim and Jason C. Shen ’17, with the help of its board of 10 students, have created an organization of more than 100.

eSports Association
Andy Kim '17 is the co-president of the Harvard College eSports Association.

Dare I call them student-athletes?
The aforementioned LAN party, which took place on the Friday of Columbus Day weekend, began with the club’s new members (and anyone else who wanted to attend) playing video games on computers and televisions and ended, 12 hours later, with a viewing party of the League of Legends World Championship Semifinals. This party was the first in a series of events the Harvard eSports Association plans on organizing to help grow the eSports community, with the ultimate goal of publicizing competitive gaming and, in turn, transforming its identity from something done for leisure in the confines of one’s dorm room to a more social—perhaps even “athletic”—activity.
“I just want to tell people who belittle this organization because they think eSports [are] not real…to be open to the idea that there are plenty of things that are entertainment but also very important to society,” Kim explains. “It doesn’t make me lame that I’m playing games on a Friday night; this is just something I want to do.”
Featuring links to an article in Playboy Magazine, Metallica tickets, and information on upcoming competitions, the Facebook page for the Harvard eSports Association could pretty easily be confused with the group page of any other collection of predominantly male athletes. The difference? The Playboy article is about the rise of the multiplayer online video game “League of Legends,” and the Metallica concert is set to take place at a gaming convention called BlizzCon.
But according to the club’s leaders—and to many of the millions of people who play eSports across the globe—in their own way, eSports are, in fact, athletic competitions. “I played four years of varsity basketball and I did track and field in high-school,” Jeong tells me, “and…I find myself practicing and feeling the same kind of motivation [with eSports that I did with more traditional sports].”
As Shen, one of the club’s co-Presidents, puts it, “Anyone can play basketball, but there are many intricacies involved, where to become a professional player, it would take long, hard hours of training. Same with video games.” 
The sports parallels do not end there; in fact, the whole culture surrounding eSports—the international obsession with competitions, the camaraderie between teammates, and the fierce competition between opponents—resembles that of most mainstream sports in America. Some people, like Jeong, think that one day eSports might even “be more or less on the equivalent level of traditional sports” in America. 
Kim goes even further: “I’d say that maybe in maximum three years…nothing differentiates us from being collegiate athletes, versus those people who are playing basketball and stuff like that on a varsity level.”
Regardless of whether or not Kim, Shen, Jeong and the rest of the Harvard eSports Association are right in their predictions that competitive gaming will take on the identity of a traditional sport in America, the increasing popularity of these games is undeniable. As more people play—and more people of all stripes, especially women, enter the community—eSports might very well be woven into the fabric of American society. 
And if you are at all interested in seeing what this group is about—and getting in ahead of the curve on what might be America’s next big sport—they are throwing another LAN party on November 7. “Just come out to the events and give it a try,” Kim says, “We’re not all nerds who can’t talk to people.”