ONEONTA, N.Y. – Esports, short for electronic sports, were already on the rise in America before the COVID-19 pandemic emptied our nation’s arenas, but a competition-starved country is turning its attention even more toward something once seen as taboo: video games.

“My parents, originally, when I said I wanted to compete in video games at the ripe age of 13, were not too happy with the idea,” said Jacob Adler, a Somers High School graduate.

Adler is now the president of the Esports Club at SUNY Oneonta, which just competed against dozens of other SUNY schools in three games: “Fortnite,” “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate,” and “Rocket League.” Oneonta’s team, which included Yorktown’s Mark Tinger, won the “Rocket League” championship, defeating Binghamton, 3-0, in the final round.

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The win earned Oneonta a $2,000 prize, which will be donated to the college’s student emergency fund. The SUNY Chancellor’s Esports Challenge, co-sponsored by Extreme Networks, also awarded $5,000 to the SUNY campus with the best overall score.

“The tournament was put together by the SUNY body as a whole, designed to support and encourage unity throughout this pandemic going on,” Adler said. “The winners would receive prize money for their school’s emergency fund. Everything was done under the banner of #SUNYtogether to get everyone on the same team.”

In “Rocket League,” described as a “vehicular soccer” video game, players use rocket-powered cars to hit balls into goals. The game is more complex than it sounds. Because the game is played at such high speeds, the balls and cars often go airborne, meaning players must calculate angles and speeds at which to strike the ball. In addition to displaying dexterity, the most skilled players are also mentally tough.

Tinger said he is driven by competition.

“Most of the time, I’m not good enough to win,” Tinger said. “That failure leads me to believe I should try again. If you’re not willing to push through failure after failure, you shouldn’t be playing competitively, because most people are not naturally gifted.”

All of his previous failures, Tinger said, helped him grow as a player, to the point where he was able to win the SUNY tournament.

Adler said esports is constantly challenging misconceptions.

“Another view is it takes very little skill to play video games, but that’s just comparing the physical exertion to other sports,” he said. “You see people running, throwing things, and crashing into each other. And in esports there is very little motion other than the players’ two hands. While the physical exertion may not be there, the mental exertion is incredible. It’s playing a chess game but with six people against six other people, each with different roles to play with strategies and techniques. It’s a been fine-tuned to a degree that’s incredible and enthralling to watch.”

Adler’s passion for video games developed when he got his first computer, starting with games like “Counter-Strike,” a first-person shooter, and “Minesweeper,” a puzzle game that came pre-installed on most PCs.

“Once I started learning about competitive esports, I started attending events as a spectator just to see what it was like, and I was instantly hooked,” Adler said.

In college, Adler sought out likeminded people who shared his love for esports. The college’s Esports Club needed new board members, so Adler applied. Initially involved in communications, a board shakeup placed Adler as president of the club.

As president, Adler has shifted the club’s focus back toward its original purpose: competitive esports.

“The previous board had been moving more toward a casual e-gaming club,” Adler said. “The original values that the Esports Club was founded on was that competitive nature.”

Getting involved in esports has never been easier. All players need is a computer or mobile device and a desire to succeed.

“One of the things I love about video games is there is very little interaction that goes on player to player in each game,” Adler said. “There is a screen between you and the game, and that adds to the feeling of anonymity. I think that’s what draws so many people. You aren’t yourself anymore, you’re a character. You get to be competitive without feeling discriminated against.”

Games can be fun, but serious players must put in the work.

“Play the game that you like, find the most competitive thing about it, and then just grind it,” Tinger said.

Another key is finding the right teammates.

“I couldn’t have done it without my team. I’ve been practicing for a year and a half with them,” Tinger said. “They’re real friends. It makes it so much more enjoyable.”

The pandemic, Adler said, has “created an outlet for people to take interest in esports.”

“This is really the time for esports to grow,” he said. “Even before, esports was growing massively. It was really taking a massive step to becoming mainstream.”

Adler called the SUNY tournament a great success for Oneonta. In addition to winning the “Rocket League” tournament, Oneonta finished in fourth place in “Fortnite.”

“It was altogether a great turnout for our school because we haven’t competed in a tournament like this before,” Adler said.

Down the line, Adler sees esports taking a foothold in college athletics.

“I see it running parallel to traditional sports like baseball and football,” Adler said. “We’re moving into collegiate. We’re going to be right up alongside them.”

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