Esports creating new opportunities, connections at UW-Eau Claire

| Judith Berthiaume (story); Jesse Yang (video)

An accomplished runner, Sam Kuhlmann knows it takes hard work and dedication to excel as a college athlete.

Senior geography major Sam Kuhlmann created and oversees the Blugold League of Legends, UW-Eau Claire’s first esports club.

Senior geography major Sam Kuhlmann created and oversees the Blugold League of Legends, UW-Eau Claire’s first esports club.

For four years, the UW-Eau Claire senior spent many hours running and working out in the weight room, a commitment that paid off in multiple trips to nationals.

Now, with his collegiate running career behind him, Kuhlmann is putting his energies toward a new sport, one that requires a similar work ethic and commitment.

The geography major from Shorewood is the founder and president of the Blugold League of Legends, UW-Eau Claire’s first esports club.

“They’re surprisingly similar,” Kuhlmann says of traditional sports versus esports. “Both require athletes to put in the time and effort. It’s just the way they spend their time that is a little different. Running every day and spending hours in the weight room isn’t required for esports, but the hours of training and dedication are still necessary. You’re not going to be good if you don’t study it, put the work in and play it.”

A global phenomenon, esports is competitive video gaming, a growing industry that attracts millions of players and spectators, who watch individuals or teams compete at live events or through streaming services. Players include everyone from the casual gamer to professionals with massive followings and seven-figure earnings.

Still in its first year, UW-Eau Claire’s esports club, created around the League of Legends video game, already has attracted more than 160 students, suggesting that there are plenty of Blugolds willing to put in the work.

Nearly 160 Blugolds have already joined UW-Eau Claire’s first esports club.

Nearly 160 Blugolds have already joined UW-Eau Claire’s first esports club.

“It’s very, very popular,” Kuhlmann says of the League of Legends game, noting that more people watch the game’s annual world championship than watch the Super Bowl. “It’s a competitive game so you can play anyone in the world. At any one time, 150,000 people might be at their computers streaming, casually watching people play. The world championship peaked at something like four million concurrent viewers. It’s not on ESPN or in sports news but the interest is there; you just don’t hear about it.”

League of Legends teams include five players, and, much like a traditional sports team, each player on a team has a designated position based on their skills, Kuhlmann says. Groups of friends can form teams, or an individual can be placed on a team that needs a player at their preferred position.

Among the Blugolds who play for UW-Eau Claire’s esports club is a student who ranks among the top 1% of the League of Legends players in the world, as well as several others who also are in the upper tiers, Kuhlmann says, noting that such high rankings are impressive accomplishments given the staggering numbers of people around the world who play the game.

Kuhlmann, who began playing League of Legends with his cross-country teammates after arriving at college, is not among those elite players, and has no aspirations to move up the rankings ladder.

For him, and many others who play the game, it’s all about the camaraderie and friendships that develop when people with a shared passion come together.

“It’s a fun, competitive outlet for me now that I’m not running,” Kuhlmann says. “My passion for the game is playing with friends. It’s a social thing for me. I don’t have the time and I’m not dedicated enough to the game to try to climb the ladder.”

Blugold teams play against other Blugold teams, as well as League of Legends teams from other universities, including many in Wisconsin.

Teams also can travel to League of Legends tournaments, which bring gamers from multiple schools together in one location.

“Most of the 'matches' we have been playing have just been unofficial scrimmages with other Wisconsin universities, but we did go to an official tournament early this semester that we ended up winning,” Kuhlmann says.

Kuhlmann began thinking about organizing an esports program on campus after seeing an ad about college teams playing the game.

“That evening, I went on online, looked it up and found out we could start a club here,” Kuhlmann says, noting that it took nearly two years for him to work through the process to make the club official. “The whole reason I play is that it’s a lot of fun playing with friends. The club was a way to get people who were maybe playing by themselves in their rooms together to hang out and meet new people who also love the game. Now it just keeps evolving.”

That evolution includes expanding the club to games other than League of Legends and organizing more competitions and events, Kuhlmann says.

Last year the roster included about 50 students but only a handful showed up to meetings consistently, Kuhlmann says. This year, 30-40 people consistently come together, and the official roster lists about 160 students, he says.

The club’s evolution also includes securing the technology and space they need to come together to compete.

Earlier this year, the Student Senate committed $20,000 to the club to buy computers and other gaming equipment, an amount that Dell matched.

At the same time, UW-Eau Claire’s Recreation and Sport Operations — which runs a variety of intramural and club sports teams as well as wellness activities — is bringing esports into its operations, says Garrett Larson, competitive sports coordinator.

Recreation will provide a space to house the newly purchased computers and other equipment, something that will allow students to gather to play the games and to support each other, Larson says.

Much like intramurals and the other more traditional sports Recreation offers, esports helps to build community among students, which is important to students’ health and wellness, Larson says.

“This is an opportunity to pull students into our recreation programs who might not otherwise see a place for them,” Larson says of esports. “It’s a way to build community, which adds to our students’ social wellness. It’s just a really good fit for us and for the students.”

The esports teams have practices, informal student coaches and other characteristics that are similar to the more traditional intramural sports, Larson says.

Students also must make a commitment to making healthy choices to be competitive in esports, Larson says. For example, they need to eat well and sleep right so they can maintain their focus, he says.

“It’s not as physical as more traditional sports but it’s still a taxing endeavor because the games can go on for a long time,” Larson says. “They need to take breaks and stay hydrated.”

When it comes to esports, the students are the experts on gaming, but the Recreation staff has the resources and organizational experience to bring it to an even wider student audience, Larson says.

“It’s been incredible,” Kuhlmann says of the partnership. “Everyone is super excited because there are so many students looking for an outlet outside of what has traditionally been offered on campus.”

Having a dedicated space for esports club members to gather to play games also helps to build and support a healthy gaming community, Kuhlmann says.

“Normally in a game, you don’t see the people you’re playing with or against,” Kuhlmann says. “It’s easy to see it as just a screen and not think about the fact that someone is on other side who has feelings and emotions.

“In a shared space, if you’re sitting next to your friends playing and you have a problem, it’s easier to talk it out. Or, if you’re screaming at the screen, it’s easy for someone next to you to remind you that it’s just a game. The goal is for people to get to know each other as people.”

Given the initial student response, the club is filling a need on campus, Larson says.

“I’ve never seen a student group grow as quickly as esports has grown here in a short amount of time,” Larson says. “Gaming has been around a long time, but it’s advanced into something more than people just playing a game. This isn’t a fad; esports is here to stay.”

Gabe Lightbody, a senior business management major from Wheaton, Illinois, agrees.

“I am 100% behind esports,” says Lightbody, who also ran cross-country for UW-Eau Claire. “One of the great things is that it does cater to people who may not be involved in more traditional sports. It draws people out and helps them create new friendships.

“It’s a great community because you can be whoever you want to be and be accepted here. Everyone comes together and has a good time.”

Already the club has a reputation for being inclusive and fun, Lightbody says. As a result, it's drawing students from all majors and all levels of gamers, he says.

“Our original thought when creating the club was that we have a passion for the League of Legends game and saw an opportunity to create something on campus for everyone else who liked the game,” Lightbody says. “We guessed a large percentage of students played the game, but we didn’t know for sure because people would sit at home to play. Now we have people from all over campus who come and play together. The number of people who play is insane.”

Given its success, the club already is evolving to include additional multiplayer games, a change that will likely mean that even more Blugolds will want to be part of it, Larson says.

Jazmin Nielsen, a special education major from Independence, initially joined the club because she loves playing League of Legends and saw the club as an easy way to get on a team and play more often.

This year, she’s even more involved because she has discovered that the club also is a great way to make connections with other Blugolds, something that’s not always easy for her since she commutes an hour to campus every day.

“I’m meeting new people who play the game who are from different majors,” Nielsen says. “It’s competitive but it’s a lot of fun. I made a lot of good friends after I joined a team.”

Through competitive gaming, she also is building skills that will help her as a future teacher, Nielson says.

“You’re always working to improve, you have to rely on your teammates, you need a strategy and you need good communication if you’re going to win,” Nielsen says.

When Kuhlmann came to UW-Eau Claire he’d never have guessed that he would be the Blugold to launch an esports program on campus.

He grew up with parents who put strict limits on technology, he says, noting that he had limited TV time and no gaming system, other than during winter break when his parents rented one for two weeks.

It was after he came to college that he discovered how gaming can help build social connections, says Kuhlmann, who began gaming to get know his running teammates.

While the esports club is now in a good place, it almost never got off the ground, Kuhlmann says. He struggled to find a faculty or staff member who had the time and interest to serve as the club’s advisor, which is required of all clubs on campus, Kuhlmann says.

He credits Chip Eckardt, UW-Eau Claire’s chief information officer in Learning and Technology Services, with saving the day by agreeing to serve in the advising role.

“He’s been fantastic,” Kuhlmann says of Eckardt’s support. “I never thought we’d be working with someone that far up the chain and someone with that kind of expertise. It’s awesome to have him involved.”

Seeing all the pieces come together is exciting because the club is making a positive change for students, including helping to change some stigmas around video gamers, Kuhlmann says.

“There is a perception that esports has a male-dominated, aggressive culture that’s not welcoming so it’s hard for people to get into it,” Kuhlmann says. “I’ve been really happy to see that our organization is successfully avoiding those stigmas. We have a diverse group of students in the club, and it’s a welcoming community. It’s cool to hear students talk about friends they met through the club.

“It was definitely my dream to create an amazing place that brings people together. It’s cool to see that we are making that happen with this club.”