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Excels in virtual reality

Game on: Mount View graduate St. Onge does battle in Esports world

Thomas College freshman dives into digital world in video game competition
By Zack Miller | Dec 05, 2019
Courtesy of: Thomas College Sam St. Onge of Thomas College, second from right.

Waterville — Since the rise of the internet, the world has become a much smaller place.

Information is at one's fingertips — and all it takes is a few clicks.

The World Wide Web also has given rise to a new sports experience, one which does not include a real ball, puck, racket and bat — or other form of projectile soaring through the air — but, instead, a different piece of equipment to hold, a controller, in the form of Esports.

Esports has steadily risen in popularity, and with that demand, colleges and universities have jumped on the bandwagon to form varsity sports, which Samuel "Sam" St. Onge, a Jackson resident and Mount View High School graduate, is a part of in his first year at Thomas College.

First time competing in growing sport

The 17-year-old freshman computer science and cyber security major has jumped into the Esports fray, after never being part of a competitive video game squad.

"I've been playing competitive Esports for about three months now, all of them at Thomas," said St. Onge. "I have had experience playing games competitively a couple years ago, but none of it has been with a set team and it was only experimentation.

"I knew I wanted to get involved with Esports at Thomas the second I saw the program's reveal at an open house event I attended. I had already been following the competitive 'Counter-Strike' scene and I had enjoyed playing the game, being introduced to the game by some friends my high school freshman year. I was excited to hopefully advance my passion of the game to another level through Thomas Esports."

"Overwatch" — which debuted in May of 2016 — is a first-person shooter video game, where players battle six-versus-six to complete various objectives.

"Right now I'm currently part of Thomas' 'Overwatch' team and part of the team's main roster," said St. Onge. "Admittedly, I hadn't played 'Overwatch' for around a year and a half before I picked it up to join the Esports team, individually training for a week before tryouts. Though very few collegiate Esport programs play 'Counter-Strike' — an entirely different can of worms — I still make sure to keep my 'Counter-Strike' muscle memory developed."

"Counter-Strike" — which debuted in November of 2000, but has had other various releases in the years prior — also is a first-person shooter game, but players join either a "terrorist" team or a "counter-terrorist" team, or become spectators, and attempt to eliminate the players from the opposing squad.

"[Sam has] been an integral part of a team that by most interpretations is in a rebuilding phase," said coach Martin Schelasin. "The team started this semester with four out of six players being either freshmen, or new to Thomas, Sam included.

"Sam has served as one of the anchors for the team and has increasingly filled a secondary leadership role. While not the team captain or the primary in-game leader (IGL), he is very frequently, the one to pick-up the slack or fill voids in necessary communication when they occur. A great example being the shot calls for which targets to focus in a given fight; while normally called by the primary IGL, what happens when the IGL is dead? They no longer have eyes on the fight and someone has to step in to keep the direction for the team going and the one to do that is more often than not Sam."

Esports at Thomas is still in the infancy stages, as the college announced a varsity team in 2018, but did not start participating in the National Association of Collegiate eSports until the spring of 2019.

"Overwatch" is not the only game Thomas provides a roster for, as "Rocket League," "Fortnite," "Rainbow 6 Siege," "Magic: The Gathering Arena and Super Smash Brothers Ultimate" are offered as well.

According to Thomas, "Esports is competitive, organized video gaming, with tournament competitions taking place all over the world — at the professional, collegiate and high school levels. Esports is a billion-dollar industry that saw 40 percent growth [in 2018]."

According to CNBC, "Industry research group Newzoo estimates esports revenues will top $1 billion for the first time [in 2019], climbing 27 percent from last year’s figure."

"I’ve been in Esports in various professional capacities for what is now almost 11 years to the day," said Schelasin. "Comparing the modern ecosystem — filling arenas, distributing millions in prizes and scholarships, building a truly comprehensive subsection of the entertainment industry — to the folding chairs, Dell workstations, and complete lack of infrastructure that characterized my first memories of the space, is an amazing but simultaneously unsurprising evolution."

For a "beginners' " look at Esports, and what is is, click here.

It is safe to say it is one of the fastest growing industries in the world, but as with any college varsity sport, athletes are held to the same "high academic standard to maintain their position in the program."

"Thomas Esports is given the same representation and recognition as the college's varsity [athletic] programs," said St. Onge. "All practices occur inside of the "CAVE" — Competitive, Academic, Varsity, Esports — which has high-powered computers lining the walls and the latest gaming consoles hooked to large flat screens.

"Esport athletes are expected to attend regular practices with their team, which are usually held during the weekdays after classes. There are also workout sessions as athletes are expected to attend in the athletic center. Having a consistently low academic attendance rate and/or low grades will result in your removal from a team."

Off and running

Just as basketball, football, baseball and other collegiate sports compete in conference games, Esports are no different.

"Matches are run and scheduled by an official tournament organizer," said St. Onge. "For 'Overwatch,' some examples would be Tespa or the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference. Our matches are all almost against other U.S. or Canadian colleges, and we play them in the CAVE at the scheduled time. Not all colleges that we play against have a varsity Esport program like Thomas, [as] some are simply clubs created and run by students.

"To get onto a team you have to participate in tryouts which occur in late-August to early-September. Around 10 people, including myself, were part of the 'Overwatch' tryouts which involved randomly scrambling different sets of people together based on what roles they wanted to play. When our coach thinks that he found the best combination of six players, they're selected for the main roster, the remaining are substitutes."

As of Dec. 5, Thomas was tied for 15th with Keuka College of Keuka Park, N.Y. in the "Overwatch" standings in the ECAC with one victory, while Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 'A' team of Troy, N.Y. was first with nine victories.

Despite an enrollment which hovers around 1,000 students, Thomas competes against larger schools in the ECAC, such as Quinnipiac of Hampden, Conn. (enrollment of more than 10,000) and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (enrollment of more than 19,000), to name two.

Expectations are Esports will continue to grow on the Thomas campus, based on the investment the school has made in the past year to attract a different type of athlete.

"The biggest example of the local growth [for Esports] can be found right at Thomas," said St. Onge. "The amount of time and resources that Thomas has put into the CAVE and making sure that we're playing to the best of our abilities is, in my opinion, a testament to the popularization of Esports.

"By participating in Esports, I've seen numerous new doors and opportunities become available to me. This April, I'll be going to Albany for an 'Overwatch' tournament and will be playing matches in-person."

Appreciation for the sport

The Jackson resident did not just stumble upon Esports, but credits his past hobbies which ushered him down this path.

"I pursued an interest in video game-level design, making maps for 'Valve's Counter Strike' and 'Team Fortress 2,' " said St. Onge. "[In] hindsight, my passion for level design allowed me to notice the detail, design, and effort that game developers put into games, furthering my appreciation for Esports."

The Mount View of Thorndike graduate believes Esports will continue to grow, as the sport has year after year across not only the U.S., but the world.

"Though my perspective, I think now is one of the best times to get into Esports, but it's definitely not for everyone," said St. Onge. "There's a fine line between wanting to become good at a game you're playing, and dreaming to become a professional at the game you're playing.

"Getting started is easy, you don't need the latest gaming equipment and jerseys to go online and start looking for a team. Finding people to play with is certainly a trial-and-error process. Even after you find the perfect squad, expect a slow burn for improvement, and set achievable goals. You won't be able to really take in the progress you make without hindsight. The Thomas 'Overwatch' team went from a group of six strangers, to a team that has taken points from some of the highest-ranked Esport colleges in the US."

Despite the rigors of competition where hand-eye coordination is key, St. Onge enjoys the sport he has delved into more than he thought he would, as he says it is not the game, "but the people."

"Before tryouts, I wasn't stressed about my ability, but whether or not I would actually enjoy being part of a team," said St. Onge. "Being part of the 'Overwatch' team has been one of my favorite college experiences so far, and I'm excited to see how we improve in the future.

"Being able to play 'Overwatch' with teammates who all respect and complement each other's ability reinvigorated my passion to improve myself. As silly as it may sound, even in my every day [life] I feel more confident because I know I have a purpose with my team."

With anything, though, there will be dislikes, but, St. Onge said, nothing major sticks out.

"I can't name an overarching value that I particularly dislike about Esports right now," said St. Onge. "I could complain about some specific examples such as the ECAC delivering schedules later than desired, or how [a certain] school had a lack of sportsmanship. But none of that would accurately describe the Esport scene as a whole.

"If anything, the thing I dislike about Esports right now is how small it can feel."

Despite the size, St. Onge can see a future for himself in the Esports world, as his goal is to "see how far I can take myself up the competitive scene."

"I'm not going to drop out of school to become a professional gamer, it's more of wanting to be recognized by someone, other than my coach, for the time I put into developing my skills," said St. Onge. "Would I want to do Esports professionally? Yes, without a doubt. However, much like someone in collegiate football trying out for the NFL, I know how important it is to have a backup plan."

St. Onge is the son of Holly St. Onge of Jackson and Ray St. Onge of Swanville.

More information about Thomas' Esports program can be found here.

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