Esports hits all the right buttons

A breakout fall season has the University of Southern Maine’s Esports players poised to level up in spring competition.

Esports is short for electronic sports. Participants play video games competitively. It’s one of several club sports offered at USM through the Office of Student Affairs.

Several Esports players gathered at a computer cluster in Bailey Hall for the finale of their 2023 fall season.
Several players hunkered down at Bailey Hall for the finale of their 2023 fall season.

Matches take place online, making intercollegiate competition easy regardless of the distance between schools. In traditional athletics, a championship tournament would require cross-country travel. USM’s top Esports players didn’t need to leave campus to compete in the fall 2023 playoffs of the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).

The post-season delegation from USM included seven entrants, spanning a range of different video games. Five of them didn’t get past the early rounds. But USM’s entries for League of Legends and Madden NFL 24 went all the way to the championship round on December 14.

Most of the players logged into their games from the comfort of their dorm room or home. Not Xander Dufour. The sophomore Computer Science major instead parked himself at a computer station on the third floor of Bailey Hall in Gorham. He wore a headset to stay in constant contact with the other four members of his League of Legends team.

Reaching the championship was a surprise to Dufour. His team plays in the lower-tier Division C. Dufour admits he doesn’t take gaming as seriously as some people. He’s more interested in having fun with friends. While intense training might work in other sports, Dufour believes the secret to his success lies elsewhere.

Xander Dufour competed for the League of Legends championship in the Esports' 2023 fall season.
Xander Dufour competed for the League of Legends championship.

“It’s not practicing more or giving more time. That’s definitely not true. We play once a week,” Dufour said. “I think we just have more mustard. More guff, if you will.”

Dufour supplemented his swagger with snacks and tall cup of coffee. He needed the fuel to stay sharp. His match started at 8 p.m. and Dufour knew from experience that a tough opponent could keep fighting for hours.

League of Legends is categorized as a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game. Two teams face off on a battlefield and individual team members use their special abilities to destroy their enemies. After three hours, the team from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut sealed their victory, and the Huskies would end their season in second place.

USM’s remaining championship hopes rested on the shoulders of Said Mohamud, a sophomore Sport Management major. His signature game is the football simulator Madden NFL 24. Mohamud went head-to-head against an opponent from Brewton-Parker College in Mount Vernon, Georgia.

Fans didn’t have a public place to root for Mohamud in person since he preferred to compete from home. But they could still form a digital cheering section by sharing the action on his screen in real time on the streaming platform Twitch, which hosts all of USM’s Esports matches.

The Twitch viewers saw Mohamud deliver a dominant performance. He stuck to the strategy that served him well all season by playing every game as the Kansas City Chiefs while his opponent alternated between the Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles. Out of the four games they played, Mohamud won three to claim the championship.

The Huskies’ strong showing in the playoffs was a huge improvement over just the previous semester. Last spring, USM only boasted two playoff contenders and neither of them advanced beyond the quarterfinals.

Darien Davis competes at Rocket League as a member of the Esports club.
When the Esports club began, it was mainly focused on Rocket League, and Darien Davis continues that tradition.

“I’d say that it really, not only legitimizes ourself as an ESports brand, but it also tells us that this is something that’s gonna keep growing,” said USM Esports Chairman Michael Brown.

Esports was a niche club when Brown first got involved. It was primarily focused on the game Rocket League, which Brown describes as soccer with cars. Upon becoming chairman, Brown oversaw a major expansion in just a few semesters.

Membership now stands at more than 70 players, but the number rises to more than 170 when counting people who participate in other ways. Players are active in all the games that are sanctioned for ECAC competition, and they also compete in the National Esports Collegiate Conference.

The games they play span a wide range of formats. The list includes fighting games like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, first-person shooters like Overwatch 2, sports simulators like NBA 2K24, and many more.

The variety of games is meant to appeal to players across demographic lines. Although men account for a majority of Esports players at USM, women occupy important leadership roles on the tournament committee and in the coaching ranks.

As chairman of the Esports club, Michael Brown keeps tabs on his fellow players while competing in his own game.
The Esports club has grown rapidly under the chairmanship of Michael Brown.

Brown wants to see female involvement grow. It’s important to him that Esports is for everyone. He didn’t immediately feel at home on campus. Brown tried several other clubs until he found the right fit.

“When I joined Esports, though, I went to their first event and I met some people there. . . I met those people and I was just, ‘Yeah, these are my people.’ I immediately wanted to be as involved as I could,” Brown said.

The search is on for new members. Spring tryouts for most games will run the weekend of January 19-21. Rocket League season begins early so those tryouts were held the previous weekend.

The Esports boom also extends to academics. For years, USM offered an undergraduate degree program in Sport Management through the School of Business. The program’s name recently changed to Sport & Esports Management in response to the growth of economic opportunities surrounding video game competitions.

Esports’ already large presence on campus is about to get another boost. A University business partner is throwing its support behind the club. The benefits of that new relationship will be revealed at an announcement on January 31 at Brooks Student Center in Gorham.