Sam Driscoll plays two sports at Hood College, golf and esports.
Talk about polar opposites.
Golf is slow-paced, giving the Walkersville grad time to figure things out before taking a shot, and a typical match is measured in hours.
Then there is Rocket League, which Driscoll plays for the Blazers’ first-year esports team. Combining soccer and driving, Rocket League is a fast-paced video game that leaves Driscoll little — if any — time to think as he competes. Games typically last five minutes.
“They are completely different,” the Blazers sophomore said of each sport.
And this spring, one other major difference has emerged. While every other collegiate sport in the United States — including golf — has been shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, Driscoll and his teammates have continued playing esports for the Blazers.
“It’s been a lot of fun, especially now with the coronavirus,” Driscoll said. “It’s something to do.”
Just last week, Hood had a heavily booked schedule that included games against UCLA and UConn, big-time schools the Blazers would never be able to play against in other sports like baseball and softball, if such other sports were currently being played.
“Right now, unfortunately because of the pandemic, we’re the only game in town,” Blazers esports coach Chris Leonard said. “And my kids are having a blast. We’re doing really well, and it’s keeping them engaged in the school. They’re still a part of something that they can’t access right now.”
Granted, the Blazers no longer get to play in their spacious, on-campus esports arena that they used during the fall and in early 2020 before the the health crisis forced the college to close. And they don’t get to use the custom-built MAINGEAR gaming computers used in their arena. But the Blazers nonetheless are still competing.
“Of course playing in the arena, you’re going to have a lot better equipment,” Leonard said. “But some of the students had similar setups in their homes, which allowed them to play. Some of the students, they’re not able to compete.”
Likewise, some esports teams didn’t have enough athletes to compete once schools were shuttered.
“But the schools that are left were able to kind of salvage enough of a spring season to continue on, if their school will allow it,” Leonard said. “And Hood allowed us to continue playing.”
The Blazers started their esports team in the fall, much to the delight of Hood students like Driscoll, Hunter Nelson and Isaiah Guy, a freshman who found out about his school’s new esports team in the fall.
“I definitely didn’t know they had an esports team when I was applying to Hood,” said Guy, another Blazers dual athlete who also plays soccer. “I heard about it from one of my other soccer teammates.”
Leonard, a 47-year-old retired law enforcement officer from North Carolina who works as a senior software development manager for General Dynamics, was hired as Hood’s esports coach in June.
“We had a pretty big turnout,” said Leonard, adding that 30 to 35 came out for the team. “They gave us a generous space, we have a huge esports arena at the college, they gave us a startup budget. We’re outfitted with 12 PCs, they’re MAINGEAR, a gaming PC. They even painted our logo on the PCs, so they’re pretty nice.”
Consider Leonard a connoisseur. He’s been playing video games since he was a kid. Name a console, and he’s probably owned it.
“We have ‘em all or have had them all, including the handhelds,” he said. “I’ve always had an interest and a passion for gaming. I’ve played my entire life, my kids play it and I help coach them. When the opportunity came up to coach and start this program at Hood, I wasn’t going to turn it down.”
This school year, the Blazers have competed in Rocket League, Overwatch and Super Smash Bros. In the fall, they will add Madden, NBA2k and Fortnite.
Like any other team at Hood, the esports team holds daily practices, and its members have to keep their grades up to compete.
Hood competes in multiple leagues, including the National Association of Collegiate Esports and the Eastern College Athletics Conference, and the team’s games are streamed on Twitch at twitch.tv/hood_esports.
With other sports forced to take a hiatus this spring, esports has helped fill some of the void by people yearning for something to watch. An eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race set a viewership record for an esports event last month.
A recent Hood game on Twitch shows the Blazers facing Virginia Tech. Hood likely couldn’t play a Division I team like the Hokies in its other sports, which compete on the NCAA Division III level. But the NCAA doesn’t govern esports, allowing the Blazers to face any and all comers, no matter how big their school is.
“They’ll remember these,” Leonard said of such games. “And they did it during the middle of the worst national crisis, and they’re still competing. It’s definitely a good way to take their minds off the pressure of school or off the pressure now on us as a society.”
Guy appreciates the freedom to play bigger colleges and not having to travel to do so.
“It’s just crazy to know that this one medium can connect schools this way, across the country,” he said.
Hood has joined a growing community of collegiate esports teams. Leonard rattled off nearby schools that fielded teams, including Maryland, Towson University and Washington College. Mount St. Mary’s has announced that it will have an esports team during the 2020-21 academic year.
Despite being a new team, Hood hasn’t been overwhelmed. In the fall, it reached the second-round of the NACE Rocket League playoffs.
“We were one win away from going to Atlanta to play in DreamHack, so we did extremely well,” Leonard said. “For the first season, making the NACE playoffs, and actually winning the first round in the playoffs, that’s pretty impressive.”