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DENVER — There's a new sport gaining popularity, and it doesn't involve a field, a court or even a ball.
In this sport, you can catch gamers banging away at their keyboards, competing against other players in a virtual sphere.
This is the new world of esports, or electronic sports, and it is a growing phenomenon that's attracting a new kind of athlete.
“I always say games are easy to pick-up on, difficult to master,” said Christian Anton, a third year student at the University of Denver and a member of the DU Esports Club team.
The world of esports just crowned its first world champion team, the London Spitfire, and a growing number of universities are even offering scholarships to competitive video gamers.
"It's really becoming a mainstream activity, especially among millennials and those younger than me, like Gen Z," Anton said.
Anton is a computer science major at DU, with a triple minor in mathematics, history and public policy. A smart guy who argues his fellow keyboard warriors are, without question, athletes.
“The definition of what is a sport and what isn’t is rather fluid,” Anton said. “Some people say stuff like car racing is a sport, while others say, ‘All they do is turn left for about three hours.’ What you can’t argue with is it’s a task that you can improve with over time and with practice.”
At DU and Colorado State University in Fort Collins, there are now both casual and competitive esports clubs.
"It really should be considered a sport," said Kyle Tong, a founding member of the casual esports club at CSU.
The clubs even have team captains, like Reave Hosman, for different games and skill levels.
"With every incoming freshman or first year class, we've grown,” Hosman said. “We've doubled, we've tripled. It really is incredible."
Gaming is also bucking the stereotype that it’s a loner activity.
"There is a lot of camaraderie among fellow gamers,” Tong said. “And they socialize together. They'll play a game together and they'll go talk and say, 'Oh, you're this person, you're that person. It’s nice to get to know you in person. Oh, it's great to meet you.'"
Esports is certainly big business, inspiring new gaming centers like a huge facility in the Denver suburb of Lakewood.
“It’s big enough to be called an arena,” said James Love, director of communications for N3rd Street Gamers. “We have one in Philadelphia and one in Denver. In a nut shell, esports is competitive video gaming. I like to call it the biggest industry that nobody has heard of because it has flown under the radar for so many years.”
But those days are perhaps over. And Love said these controller commandos exhibit uncanny reflexes and more.
"There is an extraordinary amount of hand-eye coordination,” Love said. “It also takes a lot of focus. It takes breathing. So, a lot of the training that goes into traditional sports translates to the training that esports athletes go through."
Let's get physical
At one of Denver's premiere one-on-one physical training facilities, The Body Shaping Company, trainer Briana Phillips appreciates the intensity of gaming.
"There's definitely some skill involved within esports," Phillips said.
But, she said the dedication, focus and skills of traditional athletes versus gamers are night and day.
"On a physical level, having to perform, whatever sport it is — you can't really create that sitting down watching a screen," Phillips said. “It’s just a different level of physical activity, dedication and passion.”
Equestrienne Natalie Anderson spends several hours a week in the gym.
"This is what helps me continue to compete at the level that I enjoy doing," Anderson said.
She argues the stakes are simply higher for traditional athletes compared to gamers.
"I can certainly appreciate the skill it takes to master anything,” Anderson said. “But, I don't think they're necessarily comparable in that you're not putting your body on the line in esports. There's just a physical component of, if I come in and I'm not focused, I could have a serious accident or get hurt."
While there are certainly a myriad of opinions, esports is certainly a game changer. And, it’s dispelling stereotypes about playing video games.
Dispelling the stereotypes
"The idea that it’s a 300-pound guy in his mother's basement or something like that? Totally wrong,” said University of Denver computer science professor and department chair Scott Leutenegger.
He said the intellectual abilities of esports athletes are unmatched and undeniable.
"Beyond fast reflexes, they work with a team, they communicate, they think ahead,” he said. “That's called telescopic probing — if I do this and this and this. Just like chess. Thinking in multiple stages of what you are going to do, but unlike chess, you need to do it as a team. So, in many ways, it’s much more complex than chess."
Leutenegger said gaming builds a sense of community and esports clubs can help build a university's reputation.
“I do think more and more universities will be providing scholarships to esports athletes. Absolutely,” Leutenegger said.
Are the players nerds of jocks? He said probably both.
He also pointed out that there are thousands of job opportunities in esports game development and programming.
“These students are actually getting into a career field that is going to be rewarding to them in many ways,” Leutenegger said. “It is going to be lucrative to them.”
Women in esports
For professionals like Cait Culpepper, esports is a culture and career field that’s changing all the time.
“It’s exciting,” she said.
She said her handle name is 'TinyCait.'
Culpepper is breaking barriers. First, as a woman in esports.
"I think there's definitely room in this esports sphere,” she said. “We just need to make room for ourselves."
And second, beyond competing, she's making a name for herself as an esports event organizer.
"My dad always asked me how I was going to make money doing this,” Culpepper said. “I spent 10 years in the fashion industry in Los Angeles. Eventually, I was like – I just need to take a risk and try to get into this industry and it has worked out so far. I’m an event manager planning big, amateur, open tournaments."
Those kinds of tournaments can pay out huge purses, similar to golf.
Love said the prize pools range from $500 to $10,000, and it's only growing. The higher you place, the more you earn.
"Just like every sport, you have the elites," Leutenegger said. “And you can make a lot of money.”
Beyond that, Anton said you can also pick up sponsors and some leagues are discussing annual salaries.
“They’re trying to make salaried employees where their primary income is from their sports team, like the NFL or NBA," Anton said.
Corporations are certainly starting to take the surge in popularity seriously. In a recent tournament that aired nationwide, Coca Cola, Toyota and State Farm all paid for advertising time.
Eliminating socioeconomic barriers
The doors at N3rd Street Gamers are also wide open to the casual gamer. It’s just $10 to play for four hours.
“There’s a low barrier of entry,” said Love. “And there’s a huge demographic of gamers here. We want to provide you a safe place to game with the best equipment possible.”
Whether you consider them athletes or not, esports are certainly becoming more mainstream and popular by the minute.
"It’s not a sport in the traditional sense. We're not physically exerting ourselves, that's pretty obvious,” Hosman said. “But, I would say that these games, with the amount of focus and the amount of hand-eye coordination and the amount of effort that we put in, are as — if not more — mentally draining than any other sport out there that people play.”
Tong said they have the competitive spirit — their fun just happens to take place on a computer.
"What’s so wrong with that?” he said.
Anton said esports is also a great way to make new friends.
"Everybody on the team has a different role they can fill, or several different roles," he said. "Just like you have your quarterback, your linemen and your wide receivers in football. In a game such as Overwatch, you have your team."
Those teams include several different roles, like healers, attackers, attacks and more. The team has a goal they work toward together.
“It’s not a bunch of couch potatoes,” Leutenegger said. “It’s a bunch of active people that also do esports.”