By Sam Jack
GARDEN PLAIN – If your concept of video games dates from the “Ms. Pac-Man” era, it’s time for a software update.
Many of today’s video games demand complex tactics that must be executed at lightning pace. And many have spawned serious competitive scenes – including professional leagues where top players compete for millions in prize money and become celebrities in the eyes of tens of millions of esports fans.
Blane Steckline, a 2015 graduate of Garden Plain High School, was on the verge of going pro in Overwatch, one of esports’ most popular titles, about a year and a half ago. Before he stepped away from the game to study abroad in Japan, he was practicing about six hours a day and was ranked among the top 100 players in the world.
More than 30 million people were playing Overwatch at the time he hit that peak. Some of the teammates he played with back then are now full-time professionals in the Overwatch League.
“Now they have team houses, and they wake up, get their food, and do Overwatch,” Steckline said. “They have days off, but otherwise it’s going to be Overwatch: watching it, talking about it, getting together with coaches, going over stuff that went wrong in matches, and then playing.”
Wichita State University’s esports team, of which Steckline is a founding member, has a similar team dynamic, though the time commitment is scaled down to make it manageable as an extracurricular activity. Just as on NCAA-sanctioned teams, varsity esports players need to keep up their grades in order to remain eligible.
A narrow, windowless room in the Heskett Center serves as team headquarters. Sitting at a rank of identical gaming PCs, WSU’s teams of Overwatch and Rocket League players remotely battle teams from other universities.
The atmosphere of a Sunday Overwatch match was reminiscent of that on the command deck in any number of submarine or space-combat movies.
Players clacked away furiously on mouses and keyboards. They spoke rapidly into headsets, deploying clipped jargon to keep teammates up to date on their positions and those of the opposing team: “Lucio, Lucio. Break, break. Speed speed speed!”
As a layman, it was nearly impossible to follow what was going on on Steckline’s computer screen. Steckline and his five WSU teammates leaped and sprinted wildly around “maps” – 3D playing spaces based on such locales as Paris, St. Petersburg, London and a lunar colony.
Washes of color emanated from guns and less identifiable weapons, splashing into opponents or creating nimbuses that apparently indicated a special status applied to a particular area.
In Overwatch, the map changes from round to round, as do the objectives. There are 29 different characters, each with unique abilities and associated strategic considerations. Players can switch to a different character mid-match, and often do.
With 12 players rapidly juggling all those variables, making intelligent choices seems almost superhumanly difficult. But against an outmatched University of Northern Colorado team on Sunday, WSU’s players were pretty relaxed. Notices that opposing players had been “eliminated” drifted up the middle of Steckline’s screen every few seconds.
Steckline started playing video games in middle school and by high school was into Dota 2, a team-based strategy/action game that fits into the same general category as Overwatch. He was an average Dota 2 player, he said, and he became frustrated at his stagnant skill level.
“I got one coaching session from a guy, and it blew my mind how wrong I was about everything,” he said. “I took what I learned there into Overwatch – learning how to improve.”
Steckline started playing, and studying, Overwatch as soon as its beta version was released in May 2016. Now, he makes some extra cash by coaching less advanced players, going over their game footage and analyzing how things could have gone differently.
He and his WSU teammates also routinely study video of one another’s matches, and the verbal communication is much more frequent and intense than what you hear during a game of basketball or football.
“When you’re all playing at home, it’s a different dynamic,” Steckline said. “That was the coolest thing about getting this space and all being able to play in here. When you’re all here, you can look over at a person’s face and talk about problems. When it goes well, you can see everybody get excited. We’re really thankful Wichita State got this together for us so fast.”
Tyler Levesque, the esports team’s full-time coordinator, said Steckline has been key to the Overwatch crew’s success during their first season.
“Blane is a natural leader and has a lot of in-game knowledge,” Levesque said. “He was one of the first people I looked to in terms of learning the game and developing the team. He’s been key in taking the team to another level.”