WATERVILLE — Thomas College introduced a team of varsity athletes this week unlike any in the state — and most others in the country — with the launch of its eSports program.

Instead of competing for points on a court or field, the newest Terriers navigate characters through virtual environments in an attempt to achieve a range of goals, depending on the game: destroy the opposing team’s base, be the last person standing, defuse a bomb, and make 75 “kills” first.

While the computer-based game-play is far less physically active than that of traditional sports, the matches challenge players’ cognitive and strategic abilities.

“This is going to make it sound crazy complicated,” coach Martin Schelasin said, “but the way that I would describe (eSports) is: If you were playing chess — except each player only has one piece, it can move different ways at different times during the game and there’s 10 players on the board.”

The eSports program, which launched this week after students returned to campus from winter break, is part of Thomas College’s plan to draw a new pool of students to the school. Local benefactor Bill Alfond donated upward of $100,000 to get the program started, according to Assistant Dean of Student Engagement Jim Delorie.

“This summer, (Alfond) came to Laurie (Lachance, president of Thomas College), saying he had some serious interest in funding eSports,” Delorie said. “He sees potential growth in the industry and also views eSports as a way to set the college apart from schools in the area and to offer students a chance to show off their skills by representing the college in competitions.”

In May 2017, Alfond also presented the college with its largest-ever grant, a $5.3 million gift via the Harold Alfond Foundation to fund a business innovation center.

Thomas College student Ryan Hemenway, left, and gaming coach Martin Schelasin watch over the action Tuesday in the popular gaming room known as the CAVE, the home of Competitive, Academic Varsity eSports on the Thomas campus in Waterville.

While many of Maine’s colleges — including Colby College, Bates College and the University of Maine at Farmington — have gaming clubs, Thomas College eSports is the first varsity-level collegiate team in the state and the third in New England, according to Schelasin. So far, 50 students, roughly 5 percent of the school’s population, have committed to participating on the team. ESports team rosters can be larger than traditional sports teams rosters because the sport encompasses a variety of different games, ranging from the popular battle royale-style game “Fortnite” to first-person shooter games such as “Call of Duty: Black Ops” to the professional soccer simulation “FIFA.” Not every team member plays every game.

“One of the crazy things is that … comparing me to, say, a traditional basketball coach is just completely inaccurate because I manage effectively seven or eight different sports from a knowledge perspective,” Schelasin said.

Some of the games students can play include “Fortnite,” “Call of Duty,” “FIFA,” “League of Legends,” “Overwatch,” “Smite,” “Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds,” “World of Warcraft” and “Rocket League.”

Thomas College eSports will compete in the National Association of Collegiate eSports as well as other game-specific leagues, which will be determined in the coming days based on student interest. Schelasin said that he registered the team in the east conference of the University League of Legends group, which has 28 registered teams and will involve weekly matches of the eponymous “League of Legends” game. Thomas College students played their first practice scrimmage against West Virginia University on Tuesday evening, and their first game will take place on Thursday.

“Our win-loss record will be considered very similar to an NFL-style bracket, where we’re part of the east conference; and depending on how we perform, we’ll be invited to an in-person, full-stage, broadcast event for the national finals,” Schelasin said.

Schelasin has particular expertise in “League of Legends,” having “peaked at rank 32 in North America” and launched Cloak n Dagger Gaming, the leading online resource for one particular format of the game. Before he came to campus, some students already knew of Schelasin by his gamer tag, Anderzz. Delorie said he considers Schelasin an asset to the college’s eSports program.

“We want the program to grow and go places, and we’re confident that we hired the right person who will have the ability to pull it off,” he said. “Martin knows what he’s doing, he knows the industry, and he will be able to give them the ability to show them their potential and help us recruit (eSports players) in the future.”

The idea of launching Thomas College’s eSports team was particularly exciting to Schelasin, who grew up in Scarborough and graduated from the University of Southern Maine in 2016.

“When this came across my radar, it was sort of like — I was shocked that it even existed,” Schelasin said. “The fact that there was an eSports-related career in this state was very inviting to me, so I immediately showed interest.”

“We’re trailblazing in the state and we’re not far behind trailblazing for the entire country, so it offers an opportunity for me to really make this a gold standard, even on a national basis,” he said. “We can set a road map for schools that will inevitably be coming down the road.”

Ultimately, Schelasin said, he would like to work toward a “degree of integration” between the eSports program and the college’s sports management curriculum. Right now, participating on the eSports team does not provide any academic credit.

“I know elsewhere in the country there are actually full-blown undergraduate degrees in eSports. That’s a thing that exists,” Schelasian said. “I haven’t talked to any of the administration here, but it’s something that there is precedent for, and I think could be very valuable as the industry grows in the future. I mean, we’re looking at (the industry) being multiple billions of dollars at the end of this year, so there’s no lack of career opportunity.”

Thomas College student John Farrington immerses himself in the sounds and sights of “Call of Duty” on Tuesday as he tries to stay alive and eliminate his adversaries while playing the video game in the CAVE room, the home of Competitive, Academic Varsity eSports on the Thomas campus in Waterville.

Several of the students involved with the eSports team voiced frustrations with an older generation that struggles to understand the value of gaming.

“My mom just kind of sees it as, ‘You’re just kind of playing games; why don’t you get a job?’ or something like that,” said John Farrington, a freshman at Thomas. “But it’s like — you can make a profession out of this. You can actually make money out of this.”

Schelasin expanded on this.

“There are tons of ways to (make a living out of eSports),” he said. “This is the other end that people don’t realize. Yes, there are people who play the video games; then there’s coaching staff, sports psychologists, broadcasting staff. The number of jobs created by this industry and the ways for people to channel their passion into this as a career is very, very broad and legitimate.”

By live-streaming games online through platforms such as twitch.tv, individuals can make sizable salaries. This is also where the spectator element comes in. On Twitch, viewers pay to subscribe to players’ channels and donate money to players they find talented or entertaining. One of the most popular streamers, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, makes over $500,000 a month playing “Fortnite” on this platform.

Schelasin is working to profit from the industry from another angle: nutritional supplementation. With the help of one of his friends and a team of scientists, Schelasin developed an all-natural energy drink targeted toward gamers that contains natural extracts shown to boost cognition and reaction times.

At the very least, Schelasin noted, participating in eSports develops important career-oriented skills.

“It teaches very intense critical thinking,” he said. “You can’t succeed at the majority of these games without becoming very strategic, and so that as a deductive reasoning skill set, and just as a general way to approach challenges, is very valuable.”

Ryan Hemenway, a 23-year-old Master of Business Administration student at Thomas College, enumerated other ways that playing “Fortnite” — especially in the eSports team-based setting — has helped him grow intellectually.

“For me, one of the biggest takeaways is your improvements in communication skills and strategic planning and stuff like that,” Hemenway said. “There’s definitely a lot of aspects that you can dissect from playing in an eSports (team)-type setting. In playing video games, the casual person would think of like, ‘Oh, they’re just wasting hours on that and playing mindless stuff.’ And it’s like, no. There’s a lot of things you can take away from it.”

Hemenway is what Schelasin referred to as one of the team’s “all-stars.” He holds Maine’s No. 1 ranking in “Fortnite” and New England’s second-place spot. He also was involved in Schelasin’s hiring.

Thomas College student John Farrington begins playing “Call of Duty” on Tuesday in the CAVE room, the home of Competitive, Academic Varsity eSports on the Thomas campus in Waterville.

“Sadly, I’m only going to have one semester of this,” Hemenway noted. He graduates in May. “I definitely want to see this program grow. I think it definitely has the ability to grow tremendously. I’ve heard what this plans on being a few years down the road and I’m really excited for that.”

For now, the Thomas eSports team practices in a second-floor classroom in the Alfond Academic Center, with high-end Alienware consoles, screens, keyboards, mice and headsets, back-lit with customizable colors. Schelasin said the Dell-owned company is “among the leaders in the industry.” The machines can process graphics up to eight times faster and have double to three times as much usable memory as the average computer, according to Schelasin.

“When we put the proposal together, we wanted the highest-quality equipment out there so that students see that we’re committed to this,” Delorie said. “They bought the right machines and designed the room the right way so that when (students) come to Thomas for eSports, they’re not inhibited by the machine.”

“Alfond didn’t want to dabble, but dive in and really do it right,” he added.

Delorie noted that administrators are looking to add space for eSports in the campus’ new athletics facility, which is being designed. While the school is not currently able to offer students scholarships to participate in Thomas’ eSports, Delorie said that the possibility is “not something that we have said is off the table.”

The NCAA does not regulate eSports.

Central Maine Community College will be the second institution in the state to add a collegiate level eSports team after it joins the National Association of Collegiate eSports in the fall of 2019.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins


Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.