Esports is quickly becoming a real path to paying for college, thanks in part to the recent influx of gaming scholarships. Tournaments like Heroes of the Dorm, combined with traditional scholarships, direct from the schools, are helping the scene grow quickly.
We're at the start of something great here, and we wanted to find out more about how the process has been for gamers on the front lines of college esports. So we sat down with the students on Mad Banners at University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, who competed in the Heroes of the Dorm tournament last weekend.
Raising the Banner
The gaming scene at University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign is thriving. When Blizzard announced the Heroes of the Dorm tournament, several teams popped up on campus. But the minds behind Mad Banners knew they couldn't split talent if they wanted to beat every other college in the country.
So, Voltron-like, they united to form one mega-team to represent their school.
"Due to the difficult time schedule for the qualifying rounds," Wenjie "MisterBurkes" Fu -- the team's flex player and Accounting Science major -- explains, "we decided to merge the teams. That way we’d have enough players available at any given time during the qualifying rounds."
The merge also meant some players stepping down for the greater good, but the team's now-backup support, Thomas “Zodijackyl” Hahn, didn't mind.
"That's when I realized we could get really far in this tournament," Zodijackyl says. "Growing up, I was always the best at videogames in my friend group, so becoming a sub was new to me. When that happened, I knew we had a very strong team."
But the team was now composed of mostly strangers, who just happened to go to the same college, trying to figure out how to beat the over 800 other teams in the Heroes of the Dorm tournament.
Finding Their Place
Cody "Kakisho" Chen -- an Informatics and Economics double major -- beat out Zodijackyl for the team's starting support spot, but he was quickly put in a tough position too. His team wanted him to play Uther, the Lightbringer -- a strong support hero -- to fit their new playstyle. So he did, despite never having played the hero before.
"My Uther is pretty god-awful," Kashiko admits. "I always joke with my team by complaining about playing Uther every game. My teammates often tease me, calling me 'Cody the Lightbringer'."
Humor is integral to this team's personality. When things get tense and teammates fight, the players on Mad Banners use a well-timed joke to keep emotions in check during a match.
"We have a bunch of awesome people on our team with mixed personalities," Kashiko explains. "Even though we didn’t all know each before the tournament, we’ve gotten comfortable with one another very quickly. When we’re not yelling at each other, we’re focused on the game. And if it’s not either of those, then we’re probably making jokes."
Another big contributor to this rookie team's success has been a random stranger living in Germany. The team connected with Manchy online, and they set up a schedule that allows the German to coach Mad Banners from across the Atlantic Ocean, reviewing game footage and providing feedback and advice.
It's a fairly unusual setup, but having a coach gave them a real advantage over the other, less-structured teams they faced early on.
For the… Cosplay?
Mad Banners ended up getting knocked out in the semi-final round last weekend, but the crew of Mad Banners was clearly happy to have gotten as far as they had. Miqueas “Wrath” Kim -- the team's other tank and Computer Science student -- joined with much lower goals in mind.
"Initially when we signed up for the tournament," Wrath says, "my goal was to just get to the round of 64 and get ourselves $40. Getting anywhere further in the tournament seemed impossible."
Kashiko doesn't think he's good enough to pursue playing games as a career, but is going to try his hand at coaching before moving to his backup plans.
And, despite being put on the sub list for this tournament, Zodijackyl isn't ready to give up his esports dream just yet. He wants to go pro, has already applied for esports positions in the industry, and is launching a new podcast and livestream series right after the tournament is over.
We love to see that sort of enthusiasm in college gaming athletes, and wish Zodijackyl and the Mad Banners all the best in any future tournaments they pursue. Even if they taunted us with a joke at the end of our conversation -- which seemed fitting for the playful team.
"One joke we often made during the tournament is that, if we made it to the Heroic Four, we'd all have to cosplay as the hero we play the most," Kashiko teased. "I’d have to wear a ton of clunky Uther armor, but Dayun either has to wear no pants (Tyrande) or no shirt (Illidan)!"
You can read more about all four of the college teams that battled for first place in the Heroes of the Dorm tournament this weekend, and watch the replay and highlights of the matches on the Heroes of the Dorm website.