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Michigan State students find success playing ‘Call of Duty’

Brendan Schabath

Esports are a big deal at MSU. but only four students are in the starting line-up to play Call of Duty at the highest level.

To a bystander, Michigan State senior Jack Lewis looks like a typical college student.

He majors in human resource management, is a football fan, enjoys music and movies, goes to tailgates and the fridge is stocked full of frozen ready-to-go meals. Yet, of the 50,344 students enrolled at MSU, Lewis is just one of four that does something no other student does; play competitively as a member of MSU’s Call of Duty team.

Lewis not only plays on the team, but he’s the captain and founder.

Brendan Schabath

“It’s just been me and two other people that are part of the ECA (E-Sports Club Association) that have just helped me communicate and build everything,” said Lewis. “I’ve been trying to help grow it but it’s tough when I’m still a student.”

The Call of Duty series began in October, 2003. Since then it has grown into one of the most popular video games ever, selling 400 million units which sits at second-most all time behind Tetris. Lewis got his start in Activision’s first-person shooter game at a young age, despite his parents’ wishes.

“When I was younger, I actually couldn’t have Call of Duty. So I would always go over to my friend Sam’s house and secretly play Modern Warfare 2 and (Call of Duty) Black Ops II. And then eventually once I was 13, they finally let me get Black Ops III and that’s when I started playing competitively,” said Lewis.

Many pedestrian viewers might not understand the level of skill that’s required to play competitive video games at the collegiate level. It’s not as physically demanding as other sports, but Lewis wants people to know just how much he puts into his craft.

“It’s so much more than that. With competitive, we have six different maps. I have to know every rotation, I have to know every call, I have to know every spot to hide,” said Lewis. “So it definitely gets frustrating when people are like, ‘Oh you play Call of Duty? I could beat you.’”

Brendan Schabath

Lewis and the Call of Duty team play in the College Call of Duty League (CCL). The season spans three months, with a prize pool of $25,000 spread among the top teams. First place takes home $12,500. However, it’s more than that for Lewis.

“I’m not going to win the money. I just do it because it keeps my competitive drive going. It keeps me wanting to hop on every day and get better… It’s just one of those things where we play for fun and enjoy it and if something happens, something happens.”

Something almost happened last season. Lewis and his team were just one win away from making it to the playoffs. A feat in and of itself when the size and budget of MSU’s team is compared to other schools around the country. Other schools dish out scholarships to competitive gamers and allow them to play in designated spaces that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make. MSU isn’t there yet, but may be in the future. For now, Lewis is focused on having the best team he can.

The time commitment to play competitive Call of Duty rivals that of college athletes that play sports such as football or basketball.

Lewis guesses that a match day can require up to seven or eight hours of preparation and play. This includes warming up, practicing, scouting the opponent and playing the match itself.

It’s no walk in the park. The gaming experience for competitive players is vastly different from the couch potatoes who pass the time with relaxing music, an energy drink and their favorite edition of Mario Kart.

“If somebody were to sit down and just play Call of Duty for six hours, you wouldn’t have nearly the amount of stress as if you’re playing six hours against the No. 5 team in the nation who is playing at a $200,000 facility and running on 300 mg of caffeine.”

Those numbers are not inflated. Lewis is speaking from personal experience and wishes some people understood how difficult it is to play Call of Duty competitively.

Brendan Schabath

The long nights take their toll on a college student torn between being a good team captain and enjoying a young adult life.

“The biggest thing is mental health, especially when you’re spending eight hours a day in your room with the lights off,” said Lewis.

He frequently passes on watching the big game or going to the bar with his friends in favor of practicing Call of Duty. Not because he wants to but because he feels like he has to: as a captain and as a teammate.

“So with mental health and migraines, that’s probably the most strenuous part, is being able to get that balance between ‘Okay, I’m a senior in college but at the same time I want to give everything I’ve got for my three other teammates,’ So it’s a tough, like, work-life balance,” said Lewis.

“I played competitive sports in high school and then going to college, not having that, I felt like I was missing that competitive aspect.”

Lewis is just like any other athlete. Aside from starting the team on his own, marketing, recruiting, scouting, coaching and managing the team, he’s just like the rest of them. Trying to ride his playing days into the sunset, for as long as he can.

“It keeps that competitive itch scratched. It gives me a reason to do something that I love, even if I might not be able to do it forever.”

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