Game Changer

With plans underway for a cutting-edge facility and leveled-up support for student competitors, Texas A&M University is poised to become an unexpected mecca for esports and gaming.

By Bailey Payne '19
Illustrations by Barry Blankenship

During his morning classes, Benjamin Fossitt ’25 is an everyday Aggie meteorology senior. But when he’s finished with lectures and assignments, he puts on his headset, turns on his webcam and goes to work as a “shoutcaster”—an on-screen commentator akin to sports figures like Al Michaels, Mike Breen or Dave South. Known by his handle “Zephyr,” he delivers energetic play-by-play of professional matches not on a gridiron or hardwood court but in the battle royale video game “Apex Legends.”

Video game artwork

Fossitt represents a generation that increasingly sees competitive gaming—popularly known as esports—not as a curious diversion but as a wellspring of opportunity. “I get paid to call matches for up to 50,000 people,” he said. “This isn’t a hobby. This is how I pay for my tuition and living expenses.” In 2022, video games generated $184.4 billion in revenue worldwide, more than five times the global box office revenue from all films that year. Esports currently makes up a relatively small slice of the pie, with a market value hovering above $1.3 billion, but its popularity has risen rapidly over the past two decades.

Recognizing esports’ upward trend and video games’ global popularity, Texas A&M University is spearheading significant investments through its new School of Performance, Visualization and Fine Arts (PVFA) to support collegiate esports competitors and prepare students like Fossitt for diverse careers within the gaming world. With a planned state-of-the-art facility in the works that will serve as a hub for Aggies and local community members to play, learn and compete together, Aggieland is poised to become an unexpected mecca for the world’s biggest entertainment industry.

Rocket League image
NBA 2K Series image

Leveling Up

Major esports tournaments and events have filled auditoriums with roaring crowds, often with tens of millions watching online. In 2022, a “Rocket League” championship in Fort Worth saw more than 10,000 attendees file into Dickies Arena to root for their favorite players in person and watch the action (a virtual adaptation of soccer with rocket-propelled flying cars) live on a jumbotron. But this popularity has been a long time coming.

Competitive gaming’s roots trace back to 1972, when Stanford University students battled it out in a humble tournament for the pioneering 2D game “Spacewar!” The ’80s saw arcades and businesses with popular coin-operated cabinets like “Donkey Kong” hosting competitions to drum up business. As consoles became more affordable, casual contests between friends and family members became increasingly integrated into day-to-day life.

With the advent of the internet and online gaming, everything changed. Soon, gamers could hone their skills in games like “Halo,” “Counter-Strike” and sports simulations like the “NBA 2K” series by facing human challengers from around the world. However, while competitive online games became hugely popular in America, they were often written off as hobbyhorses for children and the reclusive or even lambasted as threats to public health. Thus, competitive gaming struggled to be taken seriously as a counterpart to conventional sports.

This was not the case in East Asia, particularly South Korea. After a financial crisis rocked the region in 1997, South Korea’s government responded by injecting billions into the tech industry, upgrading its internet infrastructure and driving down computer costs. Given the constraints of densely populated cities where physical space for sports was limited, Korean students flocked to crowded internet cafés after class, spending hours with their friends playing online games as intensely as they pursued their studies and careers.

In 2000, Park Jie-won, the country’s Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, announced his ministry’s plans to invest in the fledgling pastime he called “esports,” a portmanteau of “electronic sports.” This proactive approach—compounded by sweeping socioeconomic forces—propelled South Korea to an early lead in the esports movement, with top players becoming household names and raking in millions in contracts, prizes and endorsements. The rest of the world has been playing catch-up ever since.

Halo image
NBA 2K Series image
Artwork of professional video game arena.
A group of gamers at a table.

A Sport By
Any Other Name

Directly associating gaming competitions with traditional sports by name has been a gift and a curse. On the one hand, the comparison offers an easy shorthand by which organizers, competitors and enthusiasts can translate their world to outside investors and potential fans. You may not know who Daigo Umehara is, but if someone told you he’s the Michael Jordan of “Street Fighter” players, you’d understand his reputation. On the other hand, comparing esports to conventional athletics leads to semantic arguments over what constitutes a sport and conceals competitive gaming’s unique challenges and opportunities.

“Unlike traditional sports, which nobody officially owns, each of these games is owned by the developer that made it and the publisher that distributed it,” said André Thomas, an associate professor of practice in PVFA and director of the LIVE Lab, who is leading Texas A&M’s esports and gaming efforts. Thomas is an industry veteran, having spent more than two decades as a visual effects artist for films such as “Men in Black” and as head of graphics for EA Sports’ football games, including its blockbuster “Madden” series.

“No single outside entity governs esports or organizes competitions for each game,” Thomas continued. “We’re still very much in the movement’s early stages in that way.” Without a unifying NCAA-like institution managing collegiate esports, teams at schools across the nation often enter one-off tournaments and contests held by independent organizers or the developers and publishers behind the games themselves. And since most players only specialize in one or two games, esports programs have to operate like miniature athletic departments, recruiting and coaching talent across multiple teams at once.

While esports’ decentralized nature makes for some logistical obstacles, it also provides a uniquely engaging fan experience unmatched by its traditional predecessors. Despite football’s popularity, significant barriers keep most people from playing the sport at a remotely high level. Gender alone bars half of Americans from the game, and men without the genetics, talent or opportunities to compete at a young age are left watching from the bleachers. Most spectators at Kyle Field simply have no idea what it’s like to throw a perfect thirty-yard back-shoulder spiral into the endzone and never will.

Video games, by comparison, are much more accessible. Fans attending a “League of Legends” tournament will have likely spent hundreds of hours playing the game themselves. While they may not possess the same skill as professional players, they’ll have experienced what it’s like to learn the basic mechanics, pick up their first few wins, get steamrolled by veteran players and steadily improve over time. They’ll have made game-winning last-second plays, choked away massive leads, formed friendships with their online teammates and maybe even exchanged some trash talk. They’ll have experienced the thrill of victory and agony of defeat over and over, right from their bedrooms. So when they see the professionals do something incredible in the game they love, appreciation won’t take any imagination. The fans will know magic when they see it.

Madden Series image

"" No single outside entity governs esports or organizes competitions for each game. We’re still very much in the movement’s early stages in that way.

André Thomas
A group of gamers at a table.

With The Best

Like many in his generation, Pierce Ray ’25 grew up with video games, exploring virtual sandboxes like “Roblox” and “Minecraft” until his high school friends introduced him to more competitive team-based titles like “League of Legends” and “Overwatch.” “Five of us played together every day,” Ray said. “Eventually, we asked, ‘What if we started an esports team?’” The group soon found an advisor to sponsor an official esports program at their school that continues today. After graduation, Ray attended Blinn College with the intention of transferring to Texas A&M to study economics.

“My first semester, I got an email from Blinn about tryouts for its esports team,” he remembered. “I kind of did it on a whim and ended up making their varsity ‘Overwatch’ roster.” Unbeknownst to Ray, the community college hosted a robust esports program with paid coaches, player scholarships and dedicated facilities. Ray went on to compete with the Blinn squad at a tournament in Atlanta, and he arrived in Aggieland soon after with a new perspective on what collegiate esports could be.

As vice president of Texas A&M’s esports club, Ray acts administratively with his peers, hosting socials to bring teams for different games together. However, the lack of institutional resources compared to neighboring Blinn has been a recurring challenge. Student competitors currently play most of their matches on their home desktops and pay for their travel costs when on the road. “Talented players will reach out to us saying, ‘Hey, I’m interested in coming to Texas A&M. What are your esports scholarships like?’” Ray said. “We have to tell them we don’t have any, and they stop responding.”

Fossitt sees university support as a real deciding factor for prospective students. “I nearly attended Boise State for its dedicated shoutcaster program,” he said. Instead, Fossitt studies meteorology in College Station, translating the presentation skills he’s honed while calling top-tier tournaments to weather forecasting. While not a competitive player himself, he recently coached the Aggie “Apex Legends” team to a second-place finish at a major collegiate tournament, coming just behind the well-supported Temple University team and winning $6,000. Ray expressed pride in Fossitt and the “Apex” squad, seeing their effort as a sign of the university’s potential. “At the end of the day, we’re Texas A&M,” he said. “We should be competing with the best out there.”

Overwatch image

"" At the end of the day, we’re Texas A&M. We should be competing with the best out there.

Pierce Ray ’25

"If You Build It,
They Will Come"

Thomas agrees, but building an elite esports program is just one part of a greater vision to make Texas A&M a reputable force in the gaming industry. In fall 2022, the university announced plans to bolster the school’s esports and gaming programs, an effort that had been in the works since 2019. The centerpiece: a new esports and game center in College Station. When finished, it will be among the most sophisticated facilities of its kind in the country.

“It won't just be an esports arena,” Thomas stated. “It’ll also be a space for Aggies and community members to enjoy playing games together.” Plans for the facility include a multipurpose exposition hall primarily for hosting esports events, a broadcast booth for casters like Fossitt, training rooms, high-end PCs connected to dual independent fiber lines, and spaces for visitors to bring their own computers, consoles and tabletop games. There will also be classrooms, signaling an expanded gaming development program and industry-focused curriculum in PVFA that’s still in the works.

Thomas emphasized the long-term potential for a comprehensive gaming program to invite students from all backgrounds to participate. “Games can be great equalizers,” he said. “No matter their age, gender, race or income, everyone can play together.” By creating opportunities for all Aggies to get involved in every facet of gaming from development to distribution, attracting talented prospective students from around the world and establishing itself at the forefront of a budding competitive enterprise, Texas A&M is showing it doesn’t just want to be a major player in gaming. It wants to be at the top of the leaderboard.

Image of an array of screens.

"" It wouldn’t just be an esports arena. It’d also be a space for Aggies and community members to enjoy playing games together.

André Thomas
A group of gamers at a table.

Help Aggies Level Up

Learn how you can support student competitors and strengthen esports and gaming programs in Aggieland by contacting Heather Sauber '99.