In 2017, an average of 20.4 million viewers tuned in to the NBA Finals. The 2018 College Football Playoff Championship was seen by 28.4 million viewers. Last week’s NCAA basketball championship game drew in 16.5 million viewers.

None of them, however, beat out the League of Legends 2017 World Championship. The  final match drew in 57.6 million viewers. It isn’t quite on the level of the Super Bowl (103.4 million viewers in 2018), but it surely is not something to balk at.

The sports industry has taken notice. Here at the University of Wisconsin, the Madison Esports Club has recently been designated the official Wisconsin Badger team by the athletic department.

“We can call ourselves the Badgers,” Sam Garlie, captain of the Badger Hero’s of the Storm team, said.

Garlie, who is in his senior year, has been with the club for four years.

He has seen the club, and the sport itself, grow from a student organization hosting LAN events (events in which people would have to bring their own personal computers or laptops) in Memorial Union to being the official Badger team in collegiate esports.

“You had people on laptops, you had people borrowing equipment from the school, you had people bringing in their 110 lbs desktop monsters. It was really cool,” Garlie said. “But it was still just a LAN event, it was something we just did internally and that was it.”

“Now you have schools like UC-Irvine who built an esports arena on campus. With fully fleshed out PCs and rigs for all of their competitive players. It’s crazy just all the development that has happened.”

The next step is the individual schools and conferences partnering with games like Hero’s of the Storm, something the Atlantic Coastal Conference has already done. Since the ACC has partnered with Hero’s, it gets its own region.

“Since the ACC gets its own region, all of the competitions are held in there and it is all publicized in the ACC,” Garlie said. “A whole bunch of marketing that can be done there. The Big Ten doesn’t really have anything like that. In our region we have like Michigan Tech.”

The Current Hero’s of the Storm Badger Team
— Courtesy of Madison Esports Club

But the bulk of the work of formalizing the sport has been done by the students themselves.

Advertising the sport and the organization is crucial, according to Garlie. There have been instances people reached out to join the organization but they reached out two weeks after the season already begins.

A partnership with athletics could make that issue much less prevalent according to Garlie as they wouldn’t have to rely on “tacking up posters on bulletin boards,” as a way to draw in potentially great players.

Matt Szpytma, a senior and manager of the organization’s level League of Legends teams, joined when he was a sophomore.

When he joined, he made it his goal to formalize the teams and create a more structured framework. This past year alone 50 people tried out for the League of Legends team. Szpytma and the organization then created four teams: Three to compete at the lower level and one at the higher level.

The college sports world has taken notice of the rising popularity of the esports sphere. More tournaments are popping up with more lucrative prizes.

“I think that is the direction we are headed in right now…we also have that kind of agreement through our game,” Szpytma said. “We have a team that participates in the Big Ten Tournament for our game and there are guaranteed scholarships for the winning team and their support staff.”

Garlie feels like the sport will be fully embraced by athletics across the board soon and with it could come big benefits in terms of sponsorship and potential scholarships.

“I feel that if I was born five years later, I would get benefits that we are on the edge of having right now. I feel that in five years this is going to be embraced by athletics and it will be a real thing,” Garlie said.

But the NCAA and it’s conferences are not the only ones taking notice.

Just earlier this week, the NBA hosted its first ever NBA 2K League Draft with NBA commissioner Adam Silver announcing the first overall pick.

The Milwaukee Bucks are one of 17 teams to own a team, Bucks Gaming, in the new NBA 2K league. Esports is something the Bucks are not too unfamiliar with, however.

Wes Edens, co-owner of the Bucks, invested $2.5 million in a League of Legends team back in 2016 and just this past year launched his own esports brand, FlyQuest, which owns one of ten permanent spots in the League of Legends North American Championship Series.

Szpytma said the investments pouring into the sport are an indication of the potential the market has.

“There are a lot of NBA teams, lots of corporations like Disney, Coke-a-Cola; they’re putting a lot of money into the system because they see the potential. There is a market and there is a lot of viewership involved,” He said.

Despite the investments and interest in the sport, the older generations of sports fans have a hard time calling video games a sport.

But according to Garlie, “times are changing and they need to either get with it or move on.”

Garlie puts in the time to make sure he is at the top of his game. In a typical week he will have ten hours of practice, two competitive matches which take up to two hours each, two hour scrimmage blocks to practice against other schools, watch film and then train on his own time every day.

It might not be as physically demanding as football or soccer, but Madison esports players are putting hours and hours of work into staying at the top of their games just as any athlete would.

It also brings along the same sort of fandom as traditional sports.

According to Szpytma, fans get “the same feeling that you get from watching traditional sports because you recognize the players, there are organizations that you like with owners that are very sociable or that you really like.”

The fanaticism is very cut throat, just as much as, say the Wisconsin-Ohio State rivalry, with people fighting and debating about their favorite players or teams according to Garlie. The same joy someone can get from a come from behind victory in football is the same joy one of the 50+ million viewers can get from their favorite team winning the League of Legends Championship.

The “merits” of the sport can be debated between the older and younger generations, but what cannot be debated is that video game players have moved out of the basement and possibly into an arena near you.