New generation of student athletes: NEO eSports team legitimizes gaming careers

Local News

"You can make a living off this."

MIAMI, Ok. – Starting as a club on campus last year, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College (NEO) now features an eSports team in its athletic lineup. eSports, or competitive, organized video gaming, is an up and coming viable career path.

Buffalo Run Casino’s Contender eSports Lab has been providing a space for the eSports team to practice and participate in tournaments since July. The casino, as well as Contender eSports and the Peoria Tribe Of Indians of Oklahoma, serve as the team’s sponsors.

“It was good timing because NEO planned to start an eSports team and Buffalo Run Casino planned to start an eSports lab… Our players and teams practice here and they also host tournaments every week with prize pools, so that’s awesome,” said Head Coach of NEO eSports Thales Vilar.

Students practice at the lab Monday through Friday, 3 to 5 p.m., with games 5 to 8 p.m. Yesterday, the team’s first full season began.

The team consists of 35 active members, with 80 members in the club. It features local players from Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas and has recruited players from around the world, including Kenya and Brazil.

“What I’m really excited about with this team is that it’s so diverse. We have females, we have males, we have nontraditional students in their 30s who didn’t realize that they can use their skill in gaming to get a college degree… It’s such a diverse group but they all have that connection of gaming,” said Director of NEO eSports Elizabeth Flees.

Flees says the diversity is “opening their perspective of the world a little more” and helping the team members become more “culturally-minded.”

And although video games are at the team’s core, there is a bigger picture.

“A big part of our focus for this team isn’t just about gaming… but they are student athletes first. So a big focus on this is obviously their classwork. We also try to focus on mental health and physical well-being as part of their gaming practices, so we can try to help them become more well-rounded athletes,” said Flees.

The team aims to advance the students’ careers in eSports and coach them on how to become more “marketable and profitable.” This year, the team is teaching its students how to stream, build an audience and about shoutcasting – eSports broadcasting.

“We want to help our students try every different aspect of eSports so they can try to find something that fits for them,” she added.

The team is separated into smaller groups that focus on playing games such as Call of Duty, Valorant, Overwatch, FIFA, Fortnite, and Minecraft.

Only four weeks into the semester, the team has already won over $2000 in individual tournaments.

Team member Destry Allen says he is able to pay for school “via scholarships just for playing video games” – something he has done his whole life.

In December, the team will participate in Nationals.

Others who are interested in using Buffalo Run Casino’s Contender eSports Lab can become a monthly-paying member or pay drop-in rates. A basic membership is $10 per month while drop-in rates are $40 for six hours, for example.

With 35 PCs and 13 consoles, the lab holds tournaments every Thursday with a $500 prize pool. Each tournament features a specific game such as Valorant, Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros, Rocket League or Call of Duty.

Players, who must be at least 13-years-old, sign up on site and pay an entry fee of $15. Individuals can play solo or as a team, and can bring their own gaming accessories or use the provided equipment.

“eSports is a growing industry… Video games are a big part of peoples’ live. So when they’re at home, especially during COVID this past year… people were developing skills,” said Manager of Buffalo Run Casino’s Contender eSports Colt Berry. “It’s now transitioning to a main sport because it does take skill sets and different developments to be as good as other players.”

“This isn’t a waste of time, you could pay for college with this, you can make a living off this,” he continued.

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