Making the grade: Collegiate esports continues growth with Heroes of the Dorm

The audience for Heroes of the Dorm. Blizzard

March Madness saw a Cinderella-esque run from the Syracuse men and the return of perennial favorites, such as the UConn women. Such is the fervor of the spectacle that even people who know little about sports, let alone college basketball, fill out brackets. A friend confided she had lost herself in her office's pool, rooting for teams she never followed until she marked them the winners on her bracket.

This is the magic of March. At the center of this festival are the very colleges which, for many of us, served as our first home away from home.

March Madness, esports style

This is what Blizzard and Tespa hope to emulate with Heroes of the Dorm, a 64-team, single-elimination bracket -- like the one used in NCAA basketball tournaments -- featuring the country's top Heroes of the Storm teams. Similar to the bracket pick 'ems, the best HotD bracket comes with a $10,000 prize. The five members of the winning team earn tuition for their entire college careers. More than $500,000 in scholarships and other prizes is up for grabs. And this is just their second year hosting the event.

The final four -- dubbed the Heroic Four -- will be held April 9-10 at CenturyLink Field Event Center in Seattle, right next door to the home of the NFL's Seahawks. Five years ago, Marshawn Lynch's now-famous "Beast Quake" run generated such a loud response from the crowd that it registered on seismographs. Now we bring gamers from the comfort of their homes to one of the country's biggest stages. The event will be broadcast on ESPNU this Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. ET. Arizona State University, the University of Connecticut, the University of Tennessee and the University of Texas at Arlington will compete for the championship.

The beauty of professional leagues is that we are witnessing people maximize the limits of video games. What began as a recreational hobby decades ago has blossomed into the type of competition only imagined by the science fiction of old. Being washed to the side is the stigma against gaming.

But esports isn't a domain reserved for professionals. Like traditional sports before it, games captivate children from a young age. From grade school leagues to intramural and adult leagues, people love banding together to form a team to compete. What Tespa has helped foster is similar to how the NCAA has organized collegiate sports. By recognizing the love for competition and team camaraderie, students have the opportunity to play under their school's banner. Esports has helped students further recognize and appreciate the level of pride so many people feel for their schools.


Tespa was founded in 2010 by twin brothers Adam and Tyler Rosen out of the University of Texas at Austin. It started as a collegiate gaming club. Adam Rosen says, "Creating the most epic collegiate competitions is a fundamental part of what drives us, but we've never forgotten the roots of our ambition -- helping students find a path to their futures through gaming. Whether a member simply enjoys gaming with friends or aspires to compete on the biggest stages in esports, we pride ourselves on providing opportunities for all students to embrace their passion for gaming and better their lives by doing so."

This is akin to the NCAA's idea of a model student-athlete. At the very center of these opportunities is the university -- a place first and foremost designed for higher learning. Sports and gaming are tools used to refine the students and to help mold them into more well-rounded people. The same type of teamwork, communication and drive required for succeeding in sports is also a must in esports. These are the skills the participants will carry with them beyond college.

Tespa boasts more than 140 chapters and more than 8,000 members across North America. We are not even five years removed from esports being largely ignored by mainstream audiences. Today, though, a sort of grassroots movement is taking hold of the industry. Miami (Ohio) University recently announced a varsity esports program. Prize pools and viewership in the major esports industries continue to expand. This isn't a storm that will simply pass. It's the new standard.

Adam Rosen says, "Through Tespa, we created a single home for gamers on every campus -- a place where, regardless of their backgrounds, student gamers can come together and find a like-minded, welcoming community. We've seen that the most successful competitive teams are often those that have the best support networks on campus. By creating fulfilling and supportive communities, we develop an infrastructure that provides support to all types of student gamers -- from casual players looking to make friends and cheer on their schools, to players looking to form teams and compete on the most prestigious stages in college esports."

"Esports has helped students further recognize and appreciate the level of pride so many people feel for their schools."

Organizing esports at the bottom of the pyramid, if you will, is the most surefire way to ensure the pinnacle remains intact. It's impossible to maintain the success professional esports is enjoying without providing a solid base. The professional leagues in traditional sports rely on amateur leagues to instill a competitive mindset into young players. Little League baseball, for example, helps create a trajectory for both kids and parents, helping to transcend sports into something beyond recreation.

Esports can do this, too.

Community and camaraderie

Colleges have long been the pioneer for bringing like-minded young people together. The freedom to pursue their interests and meet new friends has been at the core of the college experience. It's not surprising, then, that they helped pioneer esports. One of the biggest draws for college students is the allure of game day -- all of the school spirit and energy funneled into rowdy and extended parties. While the idea of tailgating hasn't quite made strides with esports, gathering to watch the events has. Bars, restaurants and theaters across the country have held large events to allow people to watch esports together. The fans come dressed like their favorite video game characters. They sport the jerseys of their favorite teams. It quickly becomes evident that there is a desire for a communal gatherings surrounding esports.

Colleges and universities will respond well to anything that can push school spirit. The Rosens say their initial talks with schools were initially met with confusion and bewilderment. which quickly became curiosity and intrigue. Last year, Arizona State lost a close final to the University of California, Berkeley, but received a "hero's welcome" upon returning home, as the Rosens put it. The players received an ovation at a baseball game where shirts supporting them were handed out. This year, the team is one of the four remaining squads and the university asked if it could send its marching band.

While this level of support isn't uniform across the board, it's a hopeful and telling sign of what's to come.

Having pride in your school based on the performance of your sports team has long been a strange thing for those with zero interest in sports. They never understood the intensity of the rivalries -- how strangers could scream at each other or invest so much emotional energy into something they had no direct impact on. But esports is helping capture a part of the market that has long been averse to sports. At the core of the cheering sports fan is the sense of community created by having a team to project your competitive desire upon. This is the same type of environment created by bringing gamers together.

College is the first chance for many people to forge a new life independent from their parents or guardians. It brings people from big and small high schools alike to one massive entity. It's in these settings where they find lifelong friends. For some, building an esports community is about more than finding people to play games with. Growing up in the modern age of games -- where an internet connection is a necessity -- it becomes easy to isolate yourself from people. But building esports communities is finally bringing people together outside of the game, if only so it can bring them back into the game together.

And for some those communities have developed into forces to be reckoned with. You'll understand if you tune in to the Heroes of the Dorm finals in April. The Rosens say Tespa was built on two guiding pillars: community and competition. What you'll see is how strong those pillars are. What you'll see is a glimpse of the 21st century.