Virtual Arms Race

by Tyler Dolph

On a hot and humid Saturday in July of last year, Matt Lucido left his Brooklyn Airbnb and began to make his way towards the Barclays Center. The 20,000 seat arena was sold out ahead of the afternoon’s big matchup, so naturally he wanted to get there early.  

He talked some trash with a couple of guys sporting Los Angeles gear on the way there and eventually made his way into the arena. Starting lineups were announced and the players took their positions as game time drew near.

Lucido sat on the edge of his seat, surrounded by his friends, analyzing every move made during the match. Being one of the top players in the world himself, Lucido is always looking to learn from the pros so he can figure out the little details that will make him better.

“I’m always trying to improve faster than the rest of the player base,” he affirms.

As the game inches closer and closer to its end, every fan in the jam-packed Barclays Center tenses. Replays of mistakes and heroic plays are broadcast on the big screen that’s hanging on the wall, and just like that, an entire season comes to an end. The London Spitfire have defeated the Philadelphia Fusion to win the inaugural season of one the most successful esports leagues in the world: the Overwatch League.

The opening season of the Overwatch League performed unexpectedly well, earning over $1 billion in revenue. Similarly, Lucido, Northeastern’s Overwatch team captain and president, began his foray into video games in an equally surprising fashion.

“Actually I was in the hospital,” recalls Lucido. “I had a pretty serious accident and the bed I was in was hooked up with a Nintendo 64 and I was playing Super Mario thinking, ‘This is the coolest thing ever’.”

Lucido has come a long way from his first-ever video game, and now occupies a rare echelon of gamer as one of the top 500 players in the world of the online game Overwatch.

Overwatch is a 6 vs. 6 team-based multiplayer first-person shooter video game, developed and published by Blizzard Entertainment in 2016. Since then, the game has gained a traction of over 40 million unique players across both console and PC platforms.

In 2018, Blizzard launched an ambitious professional league based around the game. The Overwatch League, or OWL, began with 12 city-based franchises. Each franchise cost $20 million to purchase and parties like Comcast and the Kraft Group, owned by Robert Kraft, quickly bought teams. People like Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke and New York Mets COO Jeff Wilpon also invested in teams. Northeastern as a whole certainly feels the same, and in 2017 established an esports student organization.

The club is complied of both casual and competitive players. There are different teams amongst the club for games like Fortnite, Rocket League, CSGO, Hearthstone and Overwatch. The competitive teams for each game play against colleges around the country and across varying leagues for titles and prize money.

Lucido says the team usually practices two times a week and plays their matches on Sunday nights during the season. He says he usually plays around 25 hours of the game a week.

The team travels throughout the Northeast to compete in local area network (LAN) tournaments during the year and also competes in an online Blizzard-organized collegiate gaming league called TESPA, which runs from January through April.

“We’ve never lost a LAN tournament,” says Lucido. “At one point last year we were third in TESPA, too. We ended seventh, and this season I think we’re going to be top five.”

The opportunity surrounding esports found its way up the Northeastern Athletics ladder, piquing the curiosity of athletic director Jeff Konya.

“There’s a lot of interest in esports and gaming technology. In a business sense, I think it’s an industry that’s projected to grow quite rapidly,” Konya said.

While Northeastern is just getting its esports presence off the ground at a club level, other schools have been all-in on the economic potential of esports, and more specifically, Overwatch.

“Esports for college used to be buddies from class come together and play games. Now it’s almost like an arms race,” emphasizes Lucido. “A lot of central US schools are giving full-ride scholarships to European professional players. Maryville has a full-pro team and Harrisburg just dropped $400,000 on a team and coach.”

This may seem like a risky business at first glance, but if the monetary success of the first OWL season is anything to go off of, the risk may be minimal. OWL has garnered sponsors from expected electronic companies like Intel and HP, but additionally boast sponsorship from Toyota, Coca Cola and T-Mobile.

Viewership of the first season was unprecedented. Over 400 thousand people across the globe tuned in to the streaming platform Twitch for the opening matches, and the grand finals were broadcast nationally in the U.S. on both ABC and ESPN.

Konya was quick to highlight how he feels about the impending growth of esports and how it relates to the school: “With the DNA of Northeastern it’s something that aligns really well with being on the forefront of a changing environment and a changing landscape.”

He adds, “We have to keep evaluating our option in the marketplace. What’s going to make sense to our students to participate in a competition? Are there conference affiliations down the road? Are there national associations that are going to navigate this rapidly changing environment?”

Season two of OWL kicked off in early February and has already shown marked improvements from season one. In addition to Twitch, matches are now also broadcast on ESPN3 and Disney XD. Eight teams were added to the league in the offseason, and the price of each team was reported to be between $30–$60 million.

“On paper, if Blizzard does everything right, it definitely has a ton of potential,” reiterates Lucido. “I think if the developer team [Blizzard] supports the league, it can go far.”

Lucido, a sophomore who comes from a background of soccer, basketball and tennis, says he’s eager for the future of Northeastern Overwatch Team.

“We’re a pretty young group,” he said. “I think the average year of our team is sophomore so I’m excited. I started recruiting aggressively when I became president and I can’t wait to see what some of our younger prospects have to offer.”

But for Lucido, the best thing about competing with the team is the community it organically creates.

“We’re very close. I mean it’s just like any other sport, if you spend that much time hanging out with other people obviously you’re going to become close.”

The team also provided him with a unique opportunity to create friends before even stepping foot on campus.

“While I was doing NUin in Australia I was already communicating with people on the team. I had so many connections and relationships once I came back.”

For him, emphasizing that feeling of community around esports is ultimately crucial. He urges all levels of video game fans to check out the NU esports club.

“Even if you just play games casually, definitely join our discord, join our community. It’s a super cool group of people.”