Isaac Richardson, a Martinsville native, explains how his team communicates on the video game Rainbow Six Siege. (By Brandon Martin)

By Brandon Martin

For decades, the image of a “jock” has been pretty consistent. Muscular, young men or women donning cloth letters from their respective schools has long been the standard.As many aspects of high school sub-culture are continually redefined, this image has begun to shift and the rise of eSports, a formal name for video game competitions, is eroding this stereotype. Now, eSports jocks are finding their proving ground behind a mouse and keyboard instead of on a field.

In the 1990s, the video gaming industry completed its evolution from childhood pastime to an organized professional sport. In today’s climate, eSports has erupted into a billion-dollar industry.

College teams are popping up all across the country and championship matches draw viewership numbers as high as 84 million according to the technology consulting firm Activate. That puts eSports as the second most watched sport in the country, only trailing football which garners a viewership of about 141 million.

Helping bolster this high viewership is the Amazon-owned streaming service Twitch. The service calls itself “the world’s leading social video platform and community for gamers.” Compared to video platforms, like YouTube, that serve as a hub for content creators to upload their material, Twitch was designed for live streaming. Viewers can interact with streamers in real time which has led to a whole new sub-section in the internet community.

Like most extracurriculars, those that play eSports break down into three different groups: the hobbyists, the collegiate players and the professionals.

For hobbyists like Martinsville native Isaac Richardson, competitive gaming provides a way to create new bonds and maintain the one’s he already had.

“I didn’t expect to find myself still playing with the same group of people going on 5 years now, the people you meet and their stories are always interesting and helps you stay open-minded,” he said.

Richardson says that “some of the group is here locally but others are friends from college and friends we’ve met through games over the years.” Some friends, he sees regularly and some he says he has never met.

Pat Compton, another online gamer that plays with Richardson, echoed the sentiment.

“My general friend group is the gaming community. I spend a majority of my time online and offline gaming with tournaments and gaming sessions. Most of my friends in my friend group understand gaming culture and enjoy the thought and passion that is eSports.”

Compton said that he racks up about 30 hours of online gaming time a week. For him, it’s the draw of competition itself that he gets excited for in the sport.

He says that since he started, “the thrill of winning and losing,” has surprised him the most. He readily admits that “losing sucks, but it’s part of the game and community. Losing is a great opportunity to reflect on yours and your opponent’s mistakes and better yourself for the next match.”

All the time the group spends playing games together has led to some successes according to Nicholas Squirrel, a Cherokee native and college roommate to Richardson.

He says that “we kind of know each other’s tendencies and general thinking patterns so we can work around it or use it to our advantage. Everyone has a preferred way of doing something and when it all comes together it can be interesting.”

Squirrel says that games aren’t the only thing that bonds the group. Things like their “same values and outlooks on life” have formed their friendship. “I suppose we share other interests as well, such as the type of media and entertainment we consume,” he continued.

Speaking on values, Richardson says that not all gaming groups are like his. According to him “the gaming community is super toxic, but can also be extremely wholesome. There is no in between.”

He says his group of friends “would look toxic from the outside, but we all share a sense of dark humor and are constantly picking on each other.”

Brittany Dutil, the only female of the group backed up Richardson’s viewpoint.

Brittany Dutil’s personal computer which is customized to play video games under ideal conditions.

“The gaming community as a whole and, especially, from the perspective of a female, seems mostly toxic and undesirable to me; however, playing with our friend group is one of my favorite hobbies,” she said.

For her, gaming has led to its own meaningful connection. She says that “it may seem sad, but I have a better time hanging online with my friends. Of course, I love my real-life friends, but we don’t have as much in common.”

And she’s not the only one that feels that way. Dayton Wickline, a friend from the group that lives in Ontario, Canada, says that “truthfully, I’ve spent just as much if not more time hanging out with the people I’ve met online as I do with friends in real life.”

While there might not be a monetary award in the future for hobbyists, that doesn’t mean that the benefits are any less meaningful.

The next group of gamers are the collegiate players. According to the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), there are over 5,000 eSport student athletes nationwide and over 170 schools that offer the sport.

At the beginning of 2019, Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) announced that it would be establishing their very own eSports club. Due to a sponsorship from Mid-Atlantic Broadband, the college created a state-of-the-art eSports gaming arena with seven Alienware Aurora R7 computers, 25-inch monitors that have an average 200mhrz refresh rate, as well as many other gaming equipment essentials.

The club plays games such as Fortnite, Rocket League, Overwatch and League of Legends. Players must try out in order to earn a seat on the team and they have to also maintain a 2.5 GPA as full-time students.

PHCC’s Athletic Director Brian Henderson said that since “eSports has emerged as a major competitive event at the collegiate level” that the school had to find a way to give their students a leg-up in the evolving sport.

The team is co-captained by Taylor Toler and Cody Meadows, who were instrumental in the design of the new arena and the creation of the program.

According to Toler, the main objective of the team is “to move on to the next level.” He says that can be in the form of moving on to a university team or even to the professionals.

Toler named a few of the benefits of moving on to the next level. He said that professional gamers can make anywhere between $80,000-120,000 a year plus any tournament prize that may be up for grabs. Technology-oriented careers also seek gamers to fill spots in their companies.

One professional gamer from the area, Christian Perkins says that the monetary advantages to gaming are a big upside for him. He estimated that “if you are winning” then you can make “$50,000 at a minimum” and up to $200,000 maximum for fighting games.

Perkins, who goes by the gamer name ChickenTech, was ranked ninth in the game Injustice 2 for the Playstation 4 (PS4), 93rd in the game Mortal Kombat X for PS4 and 37th in the game PlayerUnknown’s Battleground on the computer.

He says he practices everyday when he can but doesn’t compete locally anymore. He does still compete in the majors once a year, possibly twice.

ChickenTech says that there are plenty of other positives to professional gaming besides money. He says things like “playing with the best players in the world, the real-life skills you gain from your training on a video game, traveling to new places and meeting new people, and the learning experience at every competition” are all draws to the career.

He didn’t paint the lifestyle to be all rosy though. Perkins says that there are plenty of downsides as well.

“Maintaining interest while playing the game religiously, the cost of money it takes to travel across country to compete, keeping a positive mindset when you lose by a landslide, loss of real-life interaction due to constantly having to train to stay or excel the level you currently are at” were all some of the biggest cons for the Martinsville native.

Looking towards the future, Perkins says that eSports is on the rise and he doesn’t “see it dying anytime soon” especially since “it was actually projected to be in the Olympics by 2022.”