When Siouxsie Steengrafe is not in class or playing for the club lacrosse team, she is healing her teammates and racking up kills on a virtual battlefield as a member of the University's nationally-ranked Overwatch team.
The popular video game, a team-based shooter, is a core component of the growing esports culture at the University of Minnesota. The team is currently in its preseason, fighting for seeding against other schools like Arizona State University and Texas Tech University.
During the preseason, members of the team play two matches a week every Sunday. Competitive Overwatch is a growing trend at the University, with five other University squads in addition to the main team competing in the national tournament.
The members of the top team practice from two to five hours a week. Practices range from playing the game solo or with friends, watching professionals online or reviewing tape from previous matches. Every week, the six-member team groups up to scrimmage against other teams.
“Friday evenings [are] when we currently have our practice times. We use that time to scrim a team, preferably higher in overall ranking, typically another school,” said James Han, a senior who serves as coach and captain for the team.
A collegiate esports company called Tespa oversees the online Overwatch Collegiate Championship tournament, where more than 300 colleges submit teams to compete for scholarship money. Last academic year, participants competed for over $120,000 in scholarships.
An experienced competitor in the game, senior Noah Wrolson said he doesn't get nervous before playing in matches.
“I just go out and do my thing,” Wrolson said. “I’ve got a feel for the game, I kind of know what to expect. [I] don’t get too surprised.”
Wrolson’s calming voice and relaxed demeanor contrast with the aggressive role he plays on the team. Wrolson said he loves being on the front line, leading the charge and crashing into the enemy team to help his team win.
“I never played sports, but I liked competing,” he said.
Before joining the Overwatch team, Steengrafe said she became interested in competitive gaming while watching esports at Gopher-Con, an annual University esports tournament.
“It was really similar to watching a regular sporting event. I really enjoy the environment,” she said.
Steengrafe said seeing players compete on a stage made her want to see if she could do the same. Overwatch is the game that caught her attention.
Steengrafe said she feels esports are becoming more mainstream and similar to other sports. “Sometimes you can watch [esports] tournaments or games at a sports bar,” she said.
Colin Agur, a journalism professor who teaches the class “Digital Games and Society,” said he feels parent companies of competitive video games target college campuses to market to more people.
“The companies know they have something that excites people and they’re trying to excite more people,” he said.
Agur said the esports professional environment is different than other sports because the companies who produce the games are running the tournaments.
“If it’s done right, [esports are] relatively cheap and [are] a worthwhile addition to the University’s collegiate sports,” Agur said.
The University’s Overwatch team is competing in preseason matches until Nov. 16, Steengrafe said. The championship tournament won't be held until spring of 2019. During their off time, the team will be busy practicing and building the team.
“I think we have the potential to do really well,” Steengrafe said.