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Varsity Video Games: A look at a Miami esports athlete

Among the silent studiers and book-laden shelves of King Library, the esports arena, tucked just to the right of the library's main entrance, is a world of its own. The neon red lights from the PC towers bathe the floor in an intimidating glow, and the walls are painted black and red, giving the room a more intense tone than the rest of the library. Rows of sleek monitors and elaborate red-and-black gaming chairs fill the space, providing the members of Miami's various esports teams with a well-equipped space to practice and play.

It's here, among the computers and competitors, that Sean Mullee spends much of his time. He's a junior business economics major working toward his master's degree, thanks to the AP credits he brought in from high school. He's also a member of Miami's Sketched Out improv team and a varsity athlete for Miami's Overwatch team. He thinks that's a pretty good mix of things to be involved in.

"I think I got really lucky," Mullee said. "I see it as sort of the perfect triangle. I have school where I'm working on my master's thesis, I've got esports to be competitive and Sketched Out to just be stupid and goofy."

Overwatch, the game Mullee plays, is a multiplayer first-person shooter game that requires six people to work as a team to defeat their opponents. Players fill one of three roles: offense-based damage dealers, "tanks" meant to soak up enemy damage and attention or support characters who seek to heal and assist their team from the rear.

Mullee plays support for the team and says that learning to work with his teammates to play competitively took some effort.

"We have to practice four to five nights a week and play games on those nights or on separate nights," Mullee said. "But I wouldn't trade it because it's similar to what I'd be doing anyways, and I get to do it with my friends and do it competitively."

Mullee said his involvement with the esports team didn't originate from any lifelong goal to play, but that he's glad he decided to try it out.

"After my freshman year, I was looking for something else to do and I found out the team existed," Mullee said. "I thought, 'Hey, this would be fun to do. I'm not that good, but why not.' I wasn't expecting how big of a commitment or how much of a driving factor it would end up being."

Although esports players put in a similar amount of time to conventional athletes, the non-physical nature of video games makes a direct comparison to other sports tricky. Despite the fact that Forbes predicts the market value of the esports industry to cross into the billions this year, and that the Overwatch League streams pulled in 10 million viewers in 2018 alone, comparing video gaming to football or basketball remains a point of contention.

There are some, like former ESPN president John Skipper, who simply think that esports players aren't athletes and that the sport isn't legitimate. Mullee respectfully disagrees.

"If you want to think it isn't a sport because you don't put your full body into it, I understand that," he said. "But, like, I wouldn't agree because there's so much that goes into it. Players put as much time in, there's coaching and recruitment and infrastructure involved just like with other sports."

Miami caught on to the rise of esports early on, establishing the nation's first Division 1 varsity esports team in 2016. Across the country, other colleges are following in Miami's footsteps, and there's little indication that the increasing popularity of digital sports will cease any time soon.

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"Recently, more and more people are recognizing the value of esports," Mullee said. "They're recognizing that it's an actual passion for the sport."

Ultimately, Mullee said that while he'd love to work for companies that analyze or are involved with esports, he doesn't think he'll want to make a career out of playing the games themselves. Despite that, he said playing for the team has been an incredibly impactful experience.

"I definitely think it's changed who I am," Mullee said. "It's taught me to be more confident, more competitive. It's taught me to strive to be better than I was, and it's made me a better person just because of the people I got to be around."

The varsity Overwatch team is currently competing in a 64-team, bracket-style tournament with other teams across the country. They beat Temple University last night to move on to the top 32, and will compete against either Orange Coast College or Western Washington University sometime next week.