Fal­cons’ es­ports pro­gram no joke

Lack­awanna ready to send area’s first col­le­giate gam­ing team into ac­tion.

The Times-Tribune - - SPORTS - DON­NIE COLLINS Com­men­tary

Teddy Delaney is 10 min­utes late for our in­ter­view, so he’s prac­ti­cally sprint­ing down the steps, mak­ing a hair­pin right turn to get from one flight to an­other and the front doors of Lack­awanna Col­lege’s his­toric An­geli Hall.

“Sorry about that,” Delaney smiled sheep­ishly. “Wound up tak­ing a phone call from a re­cruit.”

Turns out, the kid lives in North Carolina — ex­actly the type of high school se­nior who likely had never heard of Lack­awanna Col­lege, never mind con­sid­ered at­tend­ing. Not un­til Delaney helped start the type of pro­gram that might turn lo­cal col­lege sports — not to men­tion your per­cep­tion of what ath­let­ics is all about — on its ear.

Next month, Lack­awanna will send the area’s first col­le­giate es­ports team into ac­tion, ad­vanc­ing a world­wide trend into the re­gion and putting Lack­awanna on the ground floor of what might be the next big thing in col­lege sports.

Tra­di­tional fans might have a dif­fi­cult time con­sid­er­ing teams of col­lege stu­dents gath­er­ing to­gether to play Over­watch, Rocket League and League of Le­gends on a fleet of Alien­ware PCS in a state-of-the-art gam­ing room in­side An­geli Hall a sport and not a hobby.

Fact is, com­pet­ing on­line against stu­dents at other schools around the na­tion might sound like a pretty cool club. Un­til a guy like Delaney starts talk­ing about schol­ar­ships.

He can award up to 75 per­cent of a stu­dent’s tu­ition if he or she is a strong player, cour­te­ous to op­po­nents and team­mates and tak­ing care of busi­ness in the class­room.

“It’s still a lit­tle sur­real to me,” ad­mit­ted Delaney, Lack­awanna’s es­ports ad­min­is­tra­tor and head coach who only be­gan sub­mit­ting pro­pos­als for the pro­gram in Jan­uary. “Never (thought about do­ing this). It was al­ways a pipe dream; like, it would be great to work in the es­ports in­dus­try or the mu­sic in­dus­try or Hol­ly­wood, or have some­thing like that to fall in your lap. So, I’m be­yond ex­cited. I come to work ev­ery day with a smile on my face be­cause I get to sit in front of these amaz­ing ma­chines and talk to kids who have the same in­ter­est as me, and I get to walk them through a col­lege I’ve been part of for sev­eral years now.

“I don’t know how na­tion­ally rec­og­nized our es­ports pro­gram is right now. But I know we want it to be. I know we plan to be. We plan to be a com­pet­i­tive team stream across the coun­try. The door is open right now.”

Be­fore any­one writes this off as some kind of elab­o­rate at­ten­tion grab for a col­lege look­ing to ex­pand its stu­dent base, con­sider two things.

The first is, while cov­er­ing a bas­ket­ball game a few months ago, an of­fi­cial from one lo­cal col­lege, who I have know for years and has his fin­ger on the pulse of the lo­cal col­lege sports scene, ap­proached me.

“Want a good col­umn idea to keep an eye on?” he asked, be­fore telling me about a lo­cal school that had been strongly con­sid­er­ing start­ing an es­ports pro­gram. Won’t men­tion what school it is, but I’ll say this: It wasn’t Lack­awanna, which sim­ply beat ev­ery­one else to the punch when it an­nounced it would be­gin com­pet­ing this fall.

The sec­ond: more peo­ple fol­low es­ports na­tion­ally than you prob­a­bly think, and not just a few more.

Last year, the World Cham­pi­onships for the pop­u­lar League of Le­gends game were held in China. It drew 43 mil­lion unique view­ers on­line and drew a peak con­cur­rent view­er­ship of 14.7 mil­lion. If that isn’t enough, the fi­nale of the In­tel Ex­treme Masters, an elite es­ports tour­na­ment, drew 173,000 in-sta­dium fans to the event in Poland last year. On­line, it at­tracted 46 mil­lion unique view­ers, which broke the League of Le­gends record, ac­cord­ing to Busi­ness In­sider.

In short, mil­lions are in­ter­ested enough in the es­ports phe­nom­e­non to tune in through on­line plat­forms like Twitch or Youtube, es­sen­tially to watch peo­ple play video games pro­fes­sion­ally.

Com­pet­i­tive gam­ing at the col­le­giate level isn’t as widely es­tab­lished.

In 2014, Robert Mor­ris Univer­sity be­came the first school to hand out schol­ar­ships to prospec­tive stu­dents who ex­cel at es­ports, but the trend picked up quickly from there.

The Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Col­le­giate es­ports, a non­profit or­ga­nized by mem­ber in­sti­tu­tions to “lay the ground­work in ar­eas such as: El­i­gi­bil­ity, Path to Grad­u­a­tion, and Com­pe­ti­tion & Schol­ar­ships,” lists more than 80 mem­bers, in­clud­ing Lack­awanna. It says it rep­re­sents more than 1,500 stu­dent-ath­letes who have re­ceived more than $9 mil­lion in schol­ar­ships and stu­dent aid.

Delaney said he’s hop­ing to put to­gether a 30-per­son team for the fall, and he al­ready has 18 class sched­ules in hand for prospec­tive mem­bers. Fact is, the team’s per­ma­nent home on the east side of An­geli won’t be set up and run­ning un­til this week.

Once it is, the fu­ture opens wide for Lack­awanna Col­lege and Delaney, who knows his might be the area’s first pro­gram, but won’t be the last.

“I like the fact we’re in on the ground floor,” An­geli said. “We have a lot of in­ter­est right off the bat. Our pro­gram is go­ing to have a lot of kids. We’re hop­ing to build a pro­gram where the at­trac­tion is al­ways go­ing to be there.

“We’re go­ing to have our name ce­mented in the col­le­giate es­ports world.”

What that all means for col­lege sports and Lack­awanna Col­lege and the en­tire area is un­known. The tip of the ice­berg, af­ter all, is just now be­ing scaled.

It sure is go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing to find out if this gets as big as Lack­awanna be­lieves it can be­come.

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