WATERVILLE — Since Thomas College launched its esports team last January, the program has grown in size, efficiency and success.

The program was the first varsity-level collegiate esports team in the state and began after local benefactor Bill Alfond donated upward of $100,000 to get it off the ground. Alfond said he wanted to start the program as a way to attract new students to Thomas.

One year later, the team has 28 members and competes regularly in regional and national tournaments in their own esports arena known as the CAVE, located in the Alfond Academic Center on campus.

Coach Martin Schelasin, a former professional esports player, has been with the team since the beginning and has had a hand in helping the program expand in more ways than one.

“When we launched, it was very much so that trial by fire, get into it kind of thing,” Schelasin said. “A lot of lessons learned, a lot of mistakes made but a lot of successes as well. As time has gone on the team has evolved.” 

Thomas’ esports team is part of a nonprofit membership association called the National Association of Collegiate Esports, also known as NACE. The esports association was formed in 2016 and now has more than 170 member schools, 5,000 student athletes and has awarded around $16 million in esports scholarships and aid.

In 2019, the total esports industry was worth an estimated $1.1 billion with an audience of around 454 million people, who tune in through live-streaming websites such as Twitch.

The program at Thomas has eight sub-teams that play seven games on a competitive level with one of these sub-teams being ranked as No. 8 in the nation for the game Magic the Gathering.

Thomas College junior Zak Edfgecomb, right, plays a round of League of Legends as Mohammad Abdalnabli stands in the hallway Jan. 28 at the Alfond Academic Center at Thomas College in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Schelasin said the national ranking in Magic the Gathering is a particularly prestigious accomplishment due to the size of Thomas College, which has around 900 students enrolled.

“I don’t think there is anyone on that top ten list that isn’t at least five times larger than us in terms of the talent pool they have access to, so that’s definitely something we’re proud of,” Schelasin said.

The team also competes in Overwatch, League of Legends, Super Smash Brothers Ultimate and Rocket League.

During the fall semester, Schelasin sought the advice of wellness coaches from three professional esports organizations to add a fitness element to Thomas’ program.

The fitness program, which is required for team members to attend three times a week, was designed to not only strengthen reaction time of players but to also maintain cardiovascular health and prevent carpal tunnel.

“We wanted to be on the forefront of the holistic approach to esports where we’re not just sitting around, playing video games,” Schelasin said. “Introducing this fitness element makes sure that my students are staying healthy, and understanding while it’s definitely something we want to encourage their pursuit of esports, it doesn’t give them an excuse to only sit in front of the computer.”

Schelasin said the fitness element has been such a “wild success” that students were asking him to expand offering it more days of the week. Schelasin obliged and made the program available to students five days a week.

Thomas College senior Jasmine Kermode practices her game of choice, Overwatch, during esports team practice Jan. 28 at the Alfond Academic Center at Thomas College in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

“Aside from the fitness program, we’ve integrated more avenues to ensure academic success,” Schelasin said. “We have a very highly integrated program with the academic coaches here so we’ve really gone from a minimum viable product to a fully fleshed out esports program that has many, if not all the bells and whistles that we were hoping to have over the long term.”

The program’s support of academic success has also paid off when just last week seven esports team members received all-academic honors from the Eastern College Athletic Conference.

Team members Davin Egan, Jasmine Kermode, Kodi Berube and Richard Schmitt have been a part of the program since it first launched and all said they’ve witnessed significant growth over the course of the last year.

“It’s grown a lot in the terms of new faces, new people,” said Egan, 22. “But also, it now seems more like an actual team rather than just a bunch of random kids just playing the game. Having Martin is really nice … he’s kind of the middle ground between all of the teams … and having the CAVE is super nice. It gives everyone a common place where we can all play with each other.”

Kermode, 19, said the esports team reassured her that Thomas was the right school for her.

“The program has really made me love Thomas and made me want to stay here,” Kermode said. “My first semester I was a little iffy about if I wanted to stay at Thomas. I didn’t know if I wanted to go back home, but then I just made a new family here on the team. The past year has been great seeing it grow and seeing more members join, seeing more teams come into existence and just cheering on my teammates.”

Berube, 20, said the induction of an official esports team at Thomas could allow people to begin understanding the sport on a deeper level.

Thomas College esport team member Davin Egan checks his phone during practice Jan. 28 at the Alfond Academic Center at Thomas College in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

“I think people should start taking a lot more notice of esports,” Berube said. “Because people still just think it’s just a point and click, but no, it’s actually very methodical game play. I want to see more people taking more of a chance with esports.”

As for Schelasin, he already knows what he wants Thomas esports to accomplish in the upcoming months.

“I want to see us begin racking up these national titles for many of our other rosters,” Schelasin said. “And for the team that’s already on the top 10 list, our Magic the Gathering team, if we could hold that title through the rest of the season and through playoff season which ends around the end of February. If we can do that, we’ll be headed to Las Vegas for the national finals in April.”

Thomas Esports can be followed on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Twitch and Youtube.

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