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Pandemic proof

At 12 Commencement Dr. in Oshawa sits the Durham College Esports Arena, part of the $800,000 renovation that turned the college pub, E.P Taylor’s, into a multi-purpose building in 2019.

Last year, the building became a hot spot on campus, with hungry students lining up for Booster Juice, waiting to play their favourite video games. The arena also hosted the Durham Lords varsity esports teams, who have been on campus for three years.

But now the building is silent amidst a global pandemic, and all of its inhabitants have been pushed online.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way the world works, but it’s been a natural transition for the Durham Lords’ varsity esports teams who are finding a way to win.

“Because of the nature of Esports and how we operate, it’s not the end of the world,” says General Manager of Durham Lords Esports, Bill Ai, who also started the Colligate Esports Program on campus with current Esports Arena manager, Sarah Wagg.

Before the Esports Arena opened in 2019, the Esports teams practised online so the Lords were well-positioned to adjust to the new normal.

Bil Ai, General Manager of Esports at Durham College with Esports student athletes.
Bil Ai, General Manager of Esports at Durham College with Austin Waite and Christian Lavender. Photo credit: Durham College Athletics

“Operating without a facility to actually physically be in is nothing new for us,” says Ai. “We know what it’s like, we know what we need to do.”

The Lords esports teams have turned to Discord as their preferred method of communication, and it has led to the teams being more connected in some ways than before.

Ben Bramly, head coach and manager of the Rocket League team, says that his team is playing together five nights a week. Practising, playing casual games, and participating in five leagues means that they’re almost always playing the game.

This constant grind of playing has led to success for the Rocket League team, as they picked up their first league win in the inaugural season of the New England Collegiate Conference (NECC) after going undefeated during the regular season.

The league win is just the second for the school, following the National Association of Collegiate Esports league championship in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in spring of 2020.

For Ai, winning shows what they’re capable of, but it’s also what The Lords strive to do every time they step on to the virtual battlefield.

“I’m extremely proud of them, (Bramly) is proud of them,” says Ai. “When it comes to anything that we do, we want to be doing the best that we absolutely can, otherwise we don’t want to do it all.”

For Durham, that means that regardless of how strong or weak their team is within a tournament, they go in with the mindset to win and it’s led to the Lords be placed near the top of leagues across multiple games.

“To able to place consistently at the top of everything we do, that sends its own message,” says Ai.

Trying to keep that standard while going online provided a few hiccups along the way. Not every athlete had access to the same standard of internet speed the Esports Arena had.

“That’s definitely been a struggle for us, to not be able to all come into the arena with its gigabit internet,” says Bramly. “It’s been tough but we’re doing the best we can and putting in our best effort from afar.”

In a typical year, the Lords play their games in the Esports Arena or on-site at another venue, but now they’re playing from their homes for major tournaments – replicating the way that they practise.

Not being able to see each other face-to-face presents its own issues as well. The ability to sit down next to your teammates and talk out problems is something that becomes more difficult when you’re not in the same room.

Austin Waite playing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in the Durham College Esports Arena.
Austin Waite playing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in the Durham College Esports Arena. Photo credit: Durham College Athletics

“It’s not really face-to-face anymore, I don’t really know what the new players look like,” says second-year CS:GO player, Austin Waite. “It’s less personal.”

For Waite and his teammates, it just doesn’t compare to being able to go to the arena and being able to get something to eat.

“Sometimes communication is lost when there’s a lot going on (online),” says Waite. “Gelling is a lot harder, for sure.”

The pandemic has also tightened the strings on the school’s budget, and Ai has had to make some hard decisions about what titles to compete in this season. The Rainbow Six: Siege team has been put on pause while they introduced the new Valorant team to the stable.

Valorant is the latest game from Riot Games, the developers behind League of Legends. Ai says Riot’s history in esports and their proven track record of developing communities around them has contributed to his decision.

“Obviously, in a year that budgets are down, I can’t just be adding teams left and right,” said Ai. “So, I weighed the pros and cons. Valorant is the new game, out of the less students that we have, it’s more likely that I find a player base of Valorant players who want to compete on that level.”

This year saw fewer Durham students trying out for esports teams, but even with the downturn, the esports scene overall is seeing a boom during this period. Organizations are committing more money to leagues, such as HyperX sponsoring the NECC and leagues like the Riot Games funded College League of Legends offering more than $4,000,000 in prize money for scholarships.

The Lords are done esports for the semester, but they’ll be back in January – still at home, away from the arena – and will look to continue to develop their winning ways by qualifying for the Collegiate Rocket League, one of the biggest prize pools in the collegiate Esports circuit.

“This type of thing can’t stop esports,” said Ai.