'This is a big deal': Oakland gets its game on with state's first Division I varsity esports team

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Carl Leone figures he was about 7 or 8 at the time when his dad let him tag along to one of his poker nights.

The new Xbox had just come out, and it just so happened the poker host had one.

"And he had the new 'Halo' game," Leone said. "I still remember sitting there for about four or five hours straight, just playing 'Halo' and loving every minute of it.

"From then on ..."

Carl Leone is Oakland University's new esports head coach.

Little did Leone know he was planting the roots for what would eventually become his career. Last month, Oakland named Leone the head coach of its inaugural esports team — which, as an official part of the school's varsity roster, makes the team a first among Division I universities in Michigan.

The team is scheduled to begin competition in the fall, and be a year-round sport, the latest sign of esports' growing footprint in Michigan, and across the nation. Internationally, particularly in China, South Korea and Japan, the sensation took off long ago.

Leone, 24, an Oxford native and Lake Orion High alum, said he plans to have at least 12 and as many as 17 players on his inaugural roster, all on partial scholarship — making up three teams, to compete in three games: "League of Legends," "Super Smash Bros. Ultimate" and "Rocket League."

"This is a big deal," Leone said. "Most schools have a club, the majority of them do, but varsity means that, of course, you receive scholarships to compete. It also means they have significant funding and staff to support the team, and on top of that, they have access to all of the same support structures there are for the athletic department. It is housed under that wing. So that means physical training, a nutritionist, mental health."

"It's important for the students that it's taken seriously as a real competitive sport. Although it's not as physical, it is a legitimate, competitive sport.

"And we're looking to be one of the best ones in the country."

Leone grew up playing hockey, but eventually video games took hold — and he attended Chicago's Robert Morris University Illinois, shortly after it had announced it was adding an esports program. After a four-year college career (he majored in business administration), he joined Robert Morris' team as an assistant coach, with a focus on analytic preparation, personal-improvement plans and social-media esport content.

Last year, he was "League of Legends" coach at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, for its inaugural season as a sanctioned varsity sport. He oversaw recruitment, budgeting, scheduling, fundraising and in-game performance.

Oakland hired him in late March, after announcing in December it was adding the program.

"Throughout the interview process, Carl articulated a clear plan for building the program, collaborating with campus and community partners, and providing a well-rounded student-athlete experience within, and outside the competitive arena," Oakland athletic director Steve Waterfield said.

"I look forward to working with him as we build the varsity esports program and make Oakland University a leader in esports."

At 24, Carl Leone is Oakland's youngest head coach.

Leone will earn a $30,000 annual salary, a pretty clear indicator of just how far esports still has to come to be accepted as a mainstream sport in this country — even though some of the sports' best performers can go on to earn well into the six figures. Leone's is the lowest salary for a varsity head coach at Oakland. Leone also is Oakland's youngest head coach.

The team's budget remains under discussions; the team will mostly compete at GameTime in Auburn Hills, while still having all full access to athletic-department support services at the O'Rena.

Someday, but who knows when, Leone actually will see his office at Oakland. But the school remains closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shut down traditional sports across the globe.

But that's where esports is wildly different, being a heavily remote-based activity. That allows Leone to still do some recruiting, or at least some research. The avid players' performances are logged online, for Leone to see — and there are plenty of videos to boot. (Amazingly, the video-game streaming community draws bigger audiences than some major sports, including basketball and basetball.) There are some in-person high-school tournaments throughout the state that he eventually plans to scout, too. Leone is open to a co-ed roster, but noted the heavy majority of gamers are men.

"We're happy to bring on anybody that's got the talent to make the team," Leone said. "There's not a lot of female representation, but I think that's gonna change over time as it becomes more mainstream and accepted."

Interestingly, esports is seeing a spike amid the coronavirus crisis, as several sports leagues have showcased their talent virtually — including NASCAR, IndyCar and Major League Baseball.

The NBA was ahead of that curve, putting together 21 "NBA 2K" teams, including one in Detroit — the Pistons Gaming Team.

Esports get lost behind the traditional sports, but Leone makes a strong case for the industry's value, and it goes well beyond just pushing buttons.

"It's eye-opening how close esports is to traditional sports. It mirrors a lot of the same lessons," he said. "Team cooperation, dedication, communication, leadership skills, a lot of life skills you really need to know. The typical esports player might not have been exposed to those kinds of skills in the past. If you're in middle school and on the football team, or high school, you kind of pick up those leadership skills. But some esports players, people really interested in gaming, tend to be introverts. They don't get those same skills.

"So this is a great opportunity to connect and grow those skills, while competing at the highest level."

Carl Leone is a graduate of Lake Orion High School and Robert Morris University.

Given the complexities of today's game, there's also a need for critical thinking and quick decision-making. These aren't your father's "Pong" or "Donkey Kong."

Leone said most of the sanctioned varsity esports teams are currently housed at smaller, private schools. He estimates there are between 20 and 40 at the Division I level throughout the country.

He expects that number to grow in the coming years — especially as it grows at the high-school level. More and more Michigan high schools have esports clubs, which are formed grassroots-style, with kids wanting to get together to play, and lobbying a faculty member to sponsor the club as an unpaid adviser. Having esports officially sanctioned someday by the Michigan High School Athletic Association would seem to be the next logical step for the sports' growth, Leone said.

Meanwhile, Oakland and Leone are thrilled to be getting in on the ground floor, coming fall 2020 — with most of the competitions set for online, at least until the national championships, which are held all over the country, depending on the game.

"I think eventually, everybody will kind of adapt to this," Leone said. "This is a way for people who don't have an outlet, who don't have their own niche to go into ... this is their way of doing it."


Twitter: @tonypaul1984