Duke and North Carolina will meet on the court for the first this this season Wednesday at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but on Feb. 10, a brand new chapter in the Tobacco Road Rivalry was written in the Durham Armory. 

The two blues squared off not in basketball, soccer or any other sport that makes up the historic competition, but in Nintendo’s recently released Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Duke Gaming, founded officially three weeks ago by senior Josh Gabay, competed in its first large-scale competition at the Triangle Sports Championship last Sunday in a grudge-match style contest against students from North Carolina. Though the fledgling Blue Devil team lost narrowly, 15-12, the team that came together over the course a few weeks gave a tough fight to a more established team from Chapel Hill, and hopes the competition is a springboard for connecting the larger gaming community at Duke. 

“A lot of people game here,” Gabay said. “Not a lot of people have connected with other games or gaming as a same interest though.”

Hitting Start

For Gabay, a Los Angeles native studying Cultural Anthropology and Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the nexus of Duke Gaming began away from campus entirely. 

“The main thing was coming from interning at Wasserman, a sports talent agency,” Gabay said. “They have offices in Raleigh, so I went back and forth last semester to intern. One of my projects was with eSports, so from there something clicked in my mind– We don’t have eSports at Duke yet.”

The eSports market that Gabay hoped to tap into is truly booming, as well. Industry estimates predict over a $1 billion in revenue for eSports around the world. Colleges have begun to notice this trend as well, and as of this week, over 125 schools have varsity eSports programs. While most colleges with scholarship-sponsored programs are NCAA Division III or NAIA affiliated, some NCAA Division I athletics powerhouses like Boise State, Missouri, Utah and Ohio State have highly competitive programs. 

Ohio State represents the gold standard for the union of universities and video games, developing an interdisciplinary curriculum studying gaming and eSports, with more detailed exploration of design, programming and video game industry business studies. The institution has also laid out plans to build an on-campus gaming arena to serve as an event space, practice facility for eSports student-athletes and open game room for Buckeye students looking for a casual gaming venue. 

For Duke, the development of Duke Gaming coincides with concerted efforts by the institution to study video games and their cultural and biological impact. The Duke Game Lab opened at the start of the Spring 2019 semester as part of the Humanities Unbounded initiative, tied to a $3 million grant provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

It is clear that as the scale of competitive gaming becomes more and more prominent, academia is paying close attention. 

Choose Your Player

For Gabay and sophomore Matthew Chatzinoff, a leader in the organization hailing from New York City, putting the team together for the Triangle Sports Championship was the first big push Duke Gaming had to make. 

For a new team, putting together a roster was no easy task. The organization began reaching out to individual students to recruit a team of players before holding an open tryout and speaking with players who proved most successful about formally joining a team with the purpose of competing in the Triangle Sports Championship. The five players who ultimately competed in TSC spent time competing in smaller weekend tournaments in Cary and Chapel Hill, honing their skills with the knowledge that they would have to face a more developed squad from North Carolina. The players spent time in the game lab or in other casual settings, participating in formal practices, but also spending time enjoying a game that released in December 2018. 

“We had 26 people show up [to our open tournament], both casual and core gamer,” Gabay said. “We just had people play, it was over four and half hours long. We then hosted another tournament with 32 or 34 people to really find who the top players were at the school… The team building was pretty surreal, the [team members] all hung out together and played games just casually and connected that way. That’s what I want to see for our organization.”

The 5v5 Super Smash Bros. competition, which was being streamed from the venue via the Twitch platform before technical difficulties took the video offline, ended with a narrow loss for the Blue Devils. The Tar Heels got off to a fast start, leaving doubt as to whether or not Duke would even have all five players be able to compete, before a run in the middle of the set allowed the Blue Devils to recover and narrow the ultimate scoreline, a 15-12 loss. 

The Next Level

Duke Gaming is not content to merely compete once, and only in one game. The group hopes to expand into partnerships with athletics, plants to create on-campus events and most importantly, add more eSports. 

“[Smash Brothers] was only one game,” Chatzinoff said. “We’re going to start venturing into Fortnite, NBA 2K, FIFA, and Counter Strike: Global Operations. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface with those games and we already know there’s huge interest in those platforms.” 

The games Gabay and Chatzinoff spoke of have robust competitive communities, and that does not even include the massively popular Multiplayer Online Battle Arena game League of Legends, which has its own separate team at Duke. 

Expanding beyond competition alone is a clear focus for Duke gaming, as it seeks to push a massively popular activity and its subculture forward. Regardless of the potential for Duke gaming, though, Gabay and Chatzinoff expressed that nostalgic gaming plays a big part in their love for the medium, expressing that their favorite games were the FIFA series and Halo 2, respectively.