MOORHEAD — Combining quick reactions with critical thinking skills is the key to winning any sort of sporting event.
Football players must always be thinking a few steps ahead of their opponents to ensure they don't get sacked, while hockey players keep their focus razor-sharp while they glide across frozen water on quarter-inch steel blades and handle a hard rubber disk.
But what happens when the skates and cleats are replaced with a chair and a screen and shoulder pads and helmets are replaced with mouse pads and a keyboard? Esports.
This world-wide, interconnected sport is taking the planet by storm. But what is esports and why is it so popular — popular enough that the region's first collegiate esports tournament will happen this weekend?
Not quite Cheetos dust
Esports is the world of competitive, organized video gaming where competitors from different teams face off in popular online games.
While one may think of "gamers" as the computer screen-tanned, Cheetos-dust covered types, Anna Hanson, sales director for Moorhead-based ByteSpeed, says gaming is becoming more and more common — and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"Honestly, everybody is a gamer," she says. "A couple of colleges and now high schools in 10 states across the country have actually sanctioned esports."
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), based in Indianapolis, is the national leadership organization for high school sports and performing arts activities. It's partnered with PlayVS, an online gaming provider, to begin esports competitions in high schools across the nation.
Because more than 70 percent of teens play video games regularly, esports allow students who would not otherwise get involved in school activities the opportunity to get involved in a way that is cheap and plays into interests they already have.
"They are team sports," Hanson says. "In this video game, (players) will have a team put together and each person will have the positions they will play to work together as a team to solve problems competitively against another team trying to do the same thing — like an athletic sport."
Esports are becoming popular very quickly. By 2021, technology consulting firm Activate suggests more than 70 million people will watch a single esports final — a higher viewership than America's professional baseball, soccer and hockey finals, second only to the Super Bowl.
Rift of the North
More than 125 universities nationwide have created varsity-level esports programs, with more schools rapidly following suit. Varsity esports programs offer unique opportunities for recruitment, increased student retention and, yes, even scholarship opportunities. In addition to these, participants build leadership and communication skills, as well as discipline — much like traditional athletes — while building relationships and growing interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Josh Knutson, head of the University of Jamestown esports team, says the future of the sport at the collegiate level is looking bright.
"It's a huge industry at the professional level, and is exploding in size and scope collegiately and at the high school level," he says. "I think that in five years, almost every college in the country will have either a club team or varsity program. It's my hope that esports as a whole also gets to a point where we mention it in the same breath as traditional sports."
While athletic scholarships can be found at virtually every college and university in the country, students looking to compete in a different way have the chance to shine at the collegiate level.
Rift of the North, the region's first collegiate esports tournament, gives 10 colleges from around the Midwest — including North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska — the opportunity to compete against each other.
"(Minnesota State University Moorhead athletic director) Doug Peters is the brainchild behind this," Hanson says. "When I got back (from a big collegiate event) a year ago, I called Doug and I said, 'You guys got to get on board. It's a huge opportunity for MSUM to start a team to reach out to your students.'"
Beginning at 5 p.m. Friday, April 5, the University of Jamestown, North Dakota State University, the University of North Dakota, MSUM, Graceland University (Iowa), the University of Minnesota, St. Ambrose (Iowa), the South Dakota School of Mines, Midland University (Nebraska) and Valley City State University will battle it out for a $5,000 prize during the two-day tournament.
"'Overwatch' and 'League of Legends' are the two games we will play at the Rift of the North," Hanson says. "They're team sports. So what that means is that in this video game, (the schools) have a team put together and each person will have their own positions and will work together to solve problems competitively."
In addition to live matches being played simultaneously throughout the evening, the community is invited to bring their own devices and participate in the "Fortnite" Foray — which runs alongside the collegiate tournament both days. Door prizes and food will also be served and recruiters and vendors will be available to answer any questions about esports programs and collegiate scholarships.
"All of us that are involved in planning the Rift of the North are super excited for the community to get a glimpse into this new frontier," Knutson says. "We hope that people can come either Friday or Saturday and watch some great games and get some of their questions about esports answered. There has always been kind of a stereotype associated with gamers, but I think if you come to this event you'll see that it is far from that negative preconceived idea."
If you go
What: Rift of the North collegiate esports tournament
When: 5 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. Saturday
Where: Nemzek Hall, Minnesota State University Moorhead, 1711 Sixth Ave. S., Moorhead
Info: Free and open to the public. A "Fortnite" Foray will run alongside collegiate matches to give the community an opportunity to get in on the action.