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The eight gamers spun spaghetti around forks, chomped on cheeseburgers and cut through chicken breasts. Some wore hoodies. Others, collared shirts. All were sitting and eating in a spacious private room at The Restaurants at Southwest on the MU campus for the same reason: Missouri’s eSports program.

It was 11:30 a.m., and the gamers and their families — who had traveled from St. Louis, Jefferson City, Houston, Virginia and Kansas — had already been on campus for hours. Earlier in the day, they had weaved through MizzouRec, where current students were running on treadmills like you’d expect with spring break coming up so soon. Then, they walked through Brooks Residence Hall, where they glanced over lounges and dorm rooms and such.

The tours led them inside a building, past a photo collage of Missouri football and baseball legends and into this private room, where they sat and ate in preparation for the day’s centerpiece: the signing of papers.

Kevin Reape, Missouri’s eSports coach, stood at the front of the room and addressed the team.

“I think we’re going to do eSports at a level it has never been done before,” Reape said.

Before last summer, the reality of an official eSports program at Missouri seemed a long way off. There were a number of reasons for that. Who would run it? Where would the competitors come from? Who would they compete against? And above all else, who or what would serve as an official governing body the way the NCAA is for football and basketball and tennis and other traditional intercollegiate sports.

Around this time, Reape, who plays the first-person shooter game “Overwatch,” the same game Missouri’s eSports athletes will play come August when their first season begins, joined in the conversations with administrators. They asked his thoughts about a possible program, and what it could become. He spoke optimistically, pointing to established local eSports teams at Columbia College, Maryville University and Stephens College.

None of those is the size that Missouri’s could be, though, so he saw an opportunity.

Reape pitched an official program with GPA requirements, with a designed space for playing, with a goal to become a top-three team in “Overwatch,” with a membership in the newly-founded National Association of Collegiate eSports Conference.

In January, Missouri announced the program, which is overseen by the office of Student Affairs (not the athletic department). On Wednesday, with Reape speaking at the front of the room, the program stepped further.

“It seems silly to think that video games can be something of (such big) stature,” Reape said, “but if I would have told you five years ago we would be having an event like this on campus today, I think just about everybody in here would think it would be crazy.”

He’s not wrong.

While the other seven competitors posted up for pictures in front of a black-logoed backdrop, Tal and Jennifer Hammock, the parents of prospective Missouri gamer Luke, spoke about their path to Wednesday’s happenings.

Years ago, they would wake up at 1 a.m. and hear Luke tapping away at particular video games on his computer. They’d tell him to go to sleep. Sometimes, he’d oblige. At the time, Tal thought his son was spending time on something that was not going to be beneficial for his future.

“But we’re not in the traditional sense anymore,” Tal said. “It’s a whole different generation.”

Co-workers often ask Jennifer about her son’s plans, and they did again this past week when they found out she was taking off work to visit MU. They have asked how the visit came about, and she had told them about Discord, a free voice and text chat app for gamers.

Luke was using the app one day when he saw a message about Missouri’s eSports team. Luke contacted Reape and expressed interest. He sent videos of his gameplay. Reape then began the recruitment.

After the story, Jennifer usually has explained her son’s passion for games and his skill rating, which ranks with some of the best.

“We’ve had people say, ‘That’s what our world is coming to?’” Jennifer said.

Tal jumped in, wanting to make a point about the gaming industry: “But it is.”

The parents smiled as they watched their son pose for a group picture with what will soon be his teammates. One of them, Brock Sotolar, grew up in Columbia. He enjoyed college football tailgates as a youth.

In eighth grade, though, his family moved to Fairfax, Virginia. And in time, he became a stud player of eSports. He wanted to continue playing the games in college, and he wanted to end up back in Missouri. This program turned out to be a perfect fit.

Sotolar spoke in the passionate way people who work at their craft often speak. He pointed around the room.

“I’m really excited to begin playing with the team,” he said.

Eventually, the signing ceremony ended and another team tour began at Center Hall. There, the gamers and their families were going to see a playing space and a streaming space, where another photo collage — a different kind of collage — might one day shine.

Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.

This article originally ran on columbiamissourian.com.

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