College roundup: Eagles, RedHawks soar into first-ever varsity Overwatch final

The Georgia Southern University Overwatch team will face off against Miami (Ohio) at 7 p.m. ET on Friday in the first National Association of Collegiate Esports Overwatch Invitational finals. Provided by Kevin Williams/Georgia Southern University

A year ago, Georgia Southern esports director Kevin Williams said, his school's Overwatch team lost nearly every game it played.

But today, after months of practice and the official backing of the school through varsity designation, the Eagles will play in the inaugural National Association of Collegiate Esports Overwatch Invitational final against Miami Ohio, another school that since receiving administrative backing has surged onto the Overwatch scene. The NACE will air the game on Twitch following its third-place match, USC Sumter vs. Trine, which begins at 6 p.m. ET.

"I think one of the biggest things was having our university system back us," Williams said of his squad. "It's something different entirely when you really feel that a school begins to care. We call it Eagle Nation. When you have Eagle Nation behind you, it really revives you."

Although League of Legends results have been the No. 1 barometer of college esports success since the varsity scene's inception, fresh titles like Overwatch, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and more traditional games like Rocket League and the Smash Bros. series have come into their own competitively. GSU and Miami Ohio don't have any League of Legends national titles to show, but they have solid footholds in many other competitive games that continue to grow as the college space diversifies.

And after today, one of those schools will have an Overwatch championship to brag about.

"This was a student-driven effort. They'd been participating at that club level for a while now and were very interested in developing a varsity team," said Glenn Platt, the director of esports for the RedHawks. "Our job was to facilitate that and grease the wheels. A large part of what it took to get from that concept to this moment, I think 80 percent of that effort was educating people on what this is. About 20 percent was the logistics: finding spaces, getting computers, that kind of thing."

Getting the players to the right spot competitively took time, too. For GSU, the turnaround was monumental. For Miami Ohio, it was more about filling in the gaps with the right players and then figuring out how to play together.

"Getting interest from international students and people that wouldn't traditionally participate in club play was vital," RedHawks head Overwatch analyst Ben Decker said. "For particularly Overwatch, right now I'd say we have a pretty diverse team."

Along with recruitment, the varsity designation helped both teams with sponsorships and exposure, as well. Williams has big goals for his programs but can't overstate how much it meant to be able to say his team was Georgia Southern's esports team, not just a club.

"That spoke very, very loudly; we started getting sponsorships almost right away," Williams said. "We have some really, really good talent on campus. "We're a big esports school, and we're trying to tie everyone together under one banner."

A national championship would be yet another confidence-booster for either program -- and an immediate return on investment for administrators. Win or lose, though, both schools have other plans for progress.

Miami Ohio, home of the Armstrong Institute for Interactive Media Studies, wants to use its academic centers to gain traction in esports research as well as on-screen play. It also wants to try to recruit more women to its programs and seek out more sponsorship opportunities, Platt said.

GSU, meanwhile, is working on expanding its on-campus presence and hiring a full-time coach for its programs. Getting more involved in recruiting players and growing its pool of 100 "soft scholarships" for players is also a priority.

Today, though, Overwatch is king.

"Our guys, they have so much potential," Williams said. "When they first got together, we told them, 'You have a chance to do something great.' They stuck together. They stayed consistent."

In other news

The East Coast Conference, an NCAA Division II conference with 10 member institutions, plans to begin facilitating conference play in esports, the conference announced Thursday.

"We have organized and promoted many championship events and plan to make this a great experience for all those participating, keeping weekly standings and statistics, while also supporting this activity in the same way we work with all our other ECC sports," conference commissioner Bob Dranoff said in a statement.

The New York Institute of Technology, Daemen College, LIU Post, Mercy College, Molloy College and St. Thomas Aquinas College will all participate in an inaugural League of Legends season starting in fall 2018.