For millions of college students around the country, coronavirus lockdowns effectively canceled their hobbies and extracurriculars. But that's not the case for Madison Cragle, a graphic design major at the State University of New York at Canton. She's co-captain of her school's Super Smash Bros. Ultimate team — an esports team. That's right, varsity video games.
"There's a joke going around that once the quarantine ends, everyone's going to be like a thousand times better because we have nothing else to do," Cragle says. Besides all the extra practice time, right now, Cragle's actually playing in a tournament alongside hundreds of her fellow students. The $20,000 prize pool will go to a SUNY student emergency aid fund, medical research, personal protective equipment and student scholarships. It's sponsored by Extreme Networks, a technology company that provides the technical infrastructure for varsity esports at Canton and other campuses around the country.
"We want to reach out and continue to build community," says SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson. Over 400,000 SUNY students are now at home, and plans for returning to campuses are very much still in formation. In the meantime, Johnson saw an opportunity to bring students together virtually across SUNY's 64 campuses. "The motivation was to get the students engaged, and then to raise money for students impacted by the crisis, and to pull together. "
There are three separate games being played in the tournament, each by their own leagues. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a descendant of Nintendo's beloved, 1980s vintage Mario Bros.; Fortnite is an immersive "battle royale," and Rocket League is succinctly described by SUNY Canton sophomore Alec Knowles as "car soccer."
Knowles, who hopped on a Zoom call along with Cragle to speak with NPR, is a "shoutcaster" for the tournament, meaning he provides play-by-play commentary over a livestream of the game. It takes a lot of time, he says: First, playing the game enough to learn the particulars so you can describe all the moves to fans. And then, the technical details. "We do all of our own streaming on Twitch," a platform for livestreaming of all kinds of activities, from video gaming to DJ sets.
"So you have to put in the time to be able to set the stream up. Make sure that everything looks great, like the video and the pixels. ... So we don't have any issues where, like, it's lagging."
Cragle says that while confined to home, the tournament's been a good social outlet. "I haven't really had much to do at home. I was gonna get a job but when the quarantine happened, I couldn't get the job I was gonna get." Now, she says, students from different campuses all over the state are connecting on special chat rooms set up on a site, called Discord, especially for tournament competitors. And there's a matchmaking function, so you can challenge people to side games.
I ask if there's much trash talking on the Discord server, and Knowles chimes in: "Smash [Bros.] is the epicenter of salt [trash talk.]"
Cragle laughs: "Yeah, if you watch the top players, they're so mean to each other sometimes. It makes for some good entertainment though, to be honest."
Video game playing overall was up a reported 75% in the first week of U.S. coronavirus lockdowns, and streaming — live spectating of game play on platforms like Twitch — was up as well. Cragle and Knowles are hoping that the tournament helps win over new fans.
"Transitioning into college, like my parents were like, yeah, I don't know if you can actually make a career off this," says Knowles. "So I did it. And my parents are really supportive of me now."