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Esports gives former high school athlete a new playing field at USF

An esport tournament at Wang Theatre in Boston where players from around the country compete annualy in December. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/THE BOSTON MAJOR

A quiet, reserved young man continues to grow through a non-traditional branch of sports. He found a new sense of self-confidence amid the sharp, plastic clicking of a video game controller.

Billy Wilson, a junior majoring in film and new media studies, grew up playing sports, but simply became bored. Gaming, however, always peaked his interest and esports gave him an avenue to grow as a person.

“I was always a fan of video games when I was a kid,” Billy said. “Super Smash Bros. Melee was always one of my favorite games. I was competitive about it; I would get upset if I lost.”

Esports is a form of competition using video games. In 2017, global esports revenues reached $696 million, with that figure projected to increase to $1.5 billion by 2020.

Orlando City SC signed Abraham Valbuena as their eMLS competitor to represent the club in FIFA video game tournaments around the world last week, making Orlando City one of 19 MLS clubs to compete in eMLS.

Melee, the game Billy plays, is among esports’ most popular.

Billy doesn’t just play Melee for fun, he plays it competitively. It’s a fighting-style video game that pits characters from the Nintendo universe in brawls. Melee tournaments use brackets that resemble the NCAA’s annual 64-team single-elimination basketball tournament.

He started playing the game when he was visiting his cousins in Tennessee. After one game of Melee, he was entranced.

“We had older cousins who played Melee,” Billy’s older brother, Jack Wilson, said. “You’re a little kid. You’re going to be obsessed with video games and all that stuff. We did other things, but we were both really into it.”

Those other things include a variety of sports. Billy played basketball, baseball and soccer growing up, but he was mostly involved in soccer until middle school. 

“When I was younger, my dad was a coach,” Billy said. “He coached soccer a lot. Basketball and baseball didn’t appeal to me as much as soccer and I lost interest as time progressed.”

In high school, Billy became an active member of the swim team at Pasco High School. 

“I saw the 2008 Olympics and saw Michael Phelps,” Billy said. “I thought I would try that. As I went through high school, I was swimming all the time. I had a club association in Tampa and would swim two to three hours a day.”

Billy was good enough to make the regional swim meet all four years of high school.

“As time progressed, I just really wasn’t into physical stuff,” Billy said. “I still run today, but swimming competitively became boring and I got tired of it.”

As he got less interested in swimming, Billy started taking esports more seriously. 

“I saw a YouTube video called ‘The best comebacks at SKTAR 3’ by Mew2King,” Billy said. “He was probably the biggest smasher at the time and he still plays to this day. But that video showed me tech skills that I hadn’t seen before.”

Mew2King is a screen name for Jason Zimmerman. In 2017, he earned just over $41,000 from Esports alone. The top esports earner in the world is Kuro Takhasomi, who won $2.4 million in 2017.

Billy became infatuated with the game. He practiced daily. Just like swimming, he started to become good quickly.

“He was just better at it than me,” Jack said. “He would kick my a** every time we played.”

Billy continued to play casually with friends and family before taking a step into competitive gaming. His friends would team up trying to beat him in three-against-one matches. He would always prevail.

“He enjoyed playing it and kept getting better at it,” Jack said. “He wanted to play against people who were better.” 

Billy played in his first competitive event at Old Video Games in Tampa, a store that is now closed. The event was called the Tampa Spicy Spot.

“I went by myself and I got destroyed,” Billy said. “I realized that’s just part of the game though. The first tournament you go to, you get wrecked because you’re bottom seed. You’ve never been there before; you play against the number one seed in the tournament.”

Instead of quitting, Billy kept practicing and played in several other tournaments. He plays in Orlando frequently and traveled to Miami before playing in the Evolution Championship Series games in Las Vegas in 2017.

Billy flew out to Las Vegas to play in the international tournament. This act was unexpected from someone who described themselves as quiet and reserved.

“I was amazed about how far he had come, I guess,” Jack said. “Hearing that he got to go to such a high-level event in a different state, to fly out there, it was kind of cool.”

The 2017 Evo games were featured on ESPN2 and Disney XD. The finals of Street Fighter V was on ESPN2 and Smash Bros. for WiiU aired on Disney XD.

Billy had transformed from a reserved high school athlete to a competitive gamer involved in esports across the country. 

He occasionally livestreams his gameplay on Twitch to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Hospital. 

Billy still plays semi-competitively at USF. At the Skypad on the fourth floor of Marshall Student Center, he is able to play video games with other students.

“It’s a big deal that he seeks that out on his own,” Billy’s mother, Lori Wilson, said. “He doesn’t know who’s going to be there, but he knows to go. I think that gaming makes him want to be engaged.”

Stories are often told about how traditional sports bring out the best in people. Esports, although non-traditional, accomplishes the same.

“Gaining self-confidence, I think self-confidence is something that everyone should have and some people just really don’t sometimes,” Billy said. “I’ve always been a quiet person because I never really wanted to express myself without feeling like an idiot. Gaming helped me make friends.”