Mississippi State esports team relishes chance to play in front of live crowds

STARKVILLE — During the summer of 2019, a 16-year-old won $3 million as a result of winning the Fortnite World Cup Finals, held at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows, New York.

For comparison, that’s over four times as much as last season’s minimum salary for a Major League Baseball player.

The world of competitive electronic sports (esports) has exploded into a billion-dollar industry, with franchises and millions of fans. It’s even expanded into professional sports, with competitions surrounding NBA 2K, Madden, FIFA and more.

In Starkville, Mississippi State has fully embraced the boom with its own esports team. After the COVID-19 pandemic halted in-person events, the return to live tournaments, beginning with the Esports Egg Bowl against Ole Miss in late October, has brought the excitement back to the club.

“It’s amazing seeing more people join the club and want to compete,” Harish Balamurugan, captain of MSU’s Valorant team, said. “This club is growing and will only continue to grow.”

Balamurugan joined the team in the height of COVID-19 as he and others were forced to compete only virtually in tournaments.

It was nothing out of the ordinary for a sport that is mostly played between teams in remote locations, but the lack of live competitions, where both teams are playing on the same stage, was lost from the fold.

Valorant, a first-person shooter-style game which pits teams of five players against each other, is one of seven games featured in October’s Esports Egg Bowl.

Rocket League, Overwatch 2, League of Legends, Super Smash Bros., Omega Strikers and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), were the other six games included, giving players different opportunities to shine in a number of different disciplines.

Held at the SJB Pavilion at Ole Miss, home of the Rebels’ men’s and women’s basketball teams, it was the first in-person Egg Bowl for most if not all Bulldogs players.

“The Esports Egg Bowl was a great experience,” MSU Esports President Nathan Bass said. “Ole Miss esports did a phenomenal job hosting the event inside of the Pavilion. It was a long and hard fought day, and at the end, everyone had enough fun to justify it all. ” 

Unfortunately for Mississippi State, the Rebels came out victorious in the best-of-seven series, 4-3, but that didn’t diminish what was a one-of-a-kind experience for a program that, compared to other schools, has taken time to receive university funding and sponsoring.

However, October’s event was only the beginning, as three weeks or so later, the team got to showcase itself in front of the Humphrey Coliseum crowd as the men’s basketball team hosted Esports Night against South Dakota.

Not only did the Bulldogs dominate on the court, defeating the Coyotes, 79-42, but they won on the virtual pitch of Rocket League, taking down South Dakota’s esports team as fans watched on the big screen.

Esports night with men’s basketball was an awesome experience,” Bass said. “The game began right at halftime, and by the end of the game, the entire student section was on their feet cheering for Rocket League. We still get asked every week when and if we’ll be doing that again.” 

From struggling to draw viewers during the pandemic to holding two large-scale live events in less than a month’s time, MSU’s esports team is back to where it was when it first began in the late 2010s.

“Being able to showcase what we’re about and what we can offer through in-person events has been a major part of growing our program this year,” Bass said. “… Now that we can build a community that extends from the computer screen to campus, we’re seeing some of our highest event attendance numbers.”

Bass helps on more of the administrative side, taking care of logistics and other ins and outs of the organization.

There are two vice presidents alongside him that handle internal and external affairs, respectively, along with an esports director who focuses more on the individual games and players.

With Mississippi State officially approving the club as a sponsored club on campus, meaning they’ll not only receive university funding but will also have a permanent home on campus, things are moving and shaking at a much faster pace.

While more labor inducing, the move has been nothing but exciting for those involved.

“These past few years online, we’ve had some of the strongest teams we’ve ever had,” said Joshua Britt, vice president of external affairs. “We hadn’t been able to showcase it on a scale this large. Our players have been so excited to get back in front of those audiences and show everyone who they are and what they’re capable of.”

That audience has become enthralled and excited with what Mississippi State has had to offer, and with the spring semester a week or so away, plans for more events, more practices and more involvement are well underway.

COVID-19 was merely a blip in what the Bulldogs hope to accomplish, and aspirations are high.

“It’s great to see MSU recognize collegiate esports and its massive growth in the past few years,” Balamurugan said. “This club will continue to grow, and I’m sure it will be a powerhouse in collegiate esports soon.”

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