The University of Minnesota will not have any school-sponsored sports competing for the rest of the school year.
But it will have esports.
Otherwise known as competitive gaming, esports gained popularity at the University around 2018, with its popular Overwatch and Hearthstone teams competing at the national level. University student clubs participate in the national Tespa tournament with more than 1,350 other schools, according to club president Ryan Buendorf. Anywhere from 150-200 gamers play against other schools nationwide, he said.
The University's leading club, for the game Overwatch, competes with its premier team "the Pizza Pirates." Seth Mayer, team captain and game lead, is also one of the top 1,000 Overwatch players in the country.
Mayer started out in the program as a B-Team substitute, but over the last two years, he has grown to become the leader of the seven gamers on the A-Team.
"I practiced and practiced and all the hard work has paid off. I like games that don't involve much mechanical aim, and it's fun how Overwatch has multiple classes of characters," Mayer said.
While the main Tespa season is in the spring and has been postponed due to COVID-19, the team could still compete later this spring. However, the Pizza Pirates have played in other tournaments to compensate.
Mayer and Buendorf have even created their own successful tournament.
"Me and Seth just created a new tournament for the top Overwatch teams called 'The Meal Plan.' Teams come together and play in a weekend tournament setting and the winners get pizzas. A lot of people enjoy it and we had a good turnout of watchers on our Twitch stream," Buendorf said.
Buendorf and Mayer, who grew up on games such as Star Wars: Battlefront II (2005) and Call of Duty: Black Ops, now lead one of the University's most successful clubs. In the Tespa preseason, the Pizza Pirates were ranked No. 1 of 450 nonvarsity collegiate teams, or teams not officially sponsored by the schools they're attached to. Nonvarsity teams also do not have players on scholarship.
But Mayer has his sights set on competing with the top varsity teams such as Maryville University. He hopes the Pizza Pirates can make the top eight at the end of the season.
"For Tespa, if you get top eight in the nation, each player gets a scholarship prize of $750," Mayer said. "The top four is $1,200 per player."
With the COVID-19 pandemic, digital sports are the only outlet for competition at the University, a fact that many will hope to boost interest in the sport.
"Any incoming freshmen or people already attending the University of Minnesota are welcome to join. In fact, before Seth and I joined the esports club, we never played competitively," Buendorf said. "Ever since, we have made so many friends and have had an absolute blast. No prior competitive experience is needed and anybody who has a passion for gaming or just wants a fun community to be apart of would make a great addition."