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Leveling up: Esports take Minnesota gamers to ‘new dimension’

From local colleges to gaming hubs to professional teams, Minnesota's esports footprint is growing.

MINNEAPOLIS — After a thrilling Timberwolves play-in win, players made waves on social media by talking about video games.

“Ant’s the only person I know that plays Call of Duty and robs me in the game," Karl-Anthony Towns said. “He's like, 'Give me your money.' I'm like, 'Bro, I'm on your team. What are you talking about?'”

From all-star athletes to college kids, esports' popularity is growing in Minnesota.

Erik Alexander is the new esports coordinator for Dunwoody College, which spent $170,000 to launch the program in the fall.

“We had about 150 to 160 students try out to be on a team," Alexander said. "We had to narrow that down to about 50, so we have seven teams right now. We have one 'Call of Duty' varsity team. We have two 'League of Legends' teams, a varsity and a JV. 'Valorant' in varsity and JV and then two 'Rocket League' teams, varsity and JV.”

Beyond obvious reasons like how cool it is to play video games at school, players were also intrigued by the state-of-the-art facility.

“I love it," team captain Vincent Biever said. "It's a whole new dimension to college I wasn't expecting at all when I first started coming to school here.”

Head coach Norman Copley is a retired "League of Legends" pro-gamer, who left the University of Minnesota to come to Dunwoody.

"I got a little bit older — I'm 24 now — so I don't got the hands like I used to and there's like, science, behind it," Copley said. "After like 22, you've peaked mechanically. So I'm more on the back end now and I like to help players improve — that have the mechanics.”

In Copley's prime, he was ranked in the top 500 in North America. He still plays recreationally to keep his skills sharp enough to beat his players in the competition. He's yet to lose.

“I think there’s only one player who has a chance, and he doesn’t have a chance, you know what I mean,” Copley said laughingly.

Biever says Copley’s methods work.

“We first started the season, we were like winning every game basically," Biever said. "We were playing really well, but I noticed that as the games continued on, we started performing better and better.”

Dunwoody also boasts a woman player, Judith Villalobos, who plays on the junior varsity team.

“It was difficult at first, but as I grew closer with my teammates, and eventually started coming into this room and playing freely more often, people started to get to know me," Villalobos said. "I can say that I definitely got more comfortable.”

Villalobos doesn’t aspire to play competitively at the next level, but esports is providing other long-term benefits.

“I was always ready to be in a male-dominated space because, as I'm studying architecture, that already on its own, is male-dominated,” Villalobos said.

They do it for the love of the game at Dunwoody, but there is a place where gamers level up.

Wisdom Gaming opened at Mall of America in July of 2022.

It was previously a Dick’s Last Resort restaurant.

At 18,000 square feet, it functions as a Midwest hub for esports.

“Esports has largely been centered on coasts," Wisdom Gaming SVP Jaycie Gluck said. "This is a great opportunity to meet in the middle.”

Wisdom hosts gaming events weekly.

“Last year, we held the Wild Rift North American Regional Championship, working to crown a North American champion that would then get to go on to the World Championship," Gluck said.

It also hosts the Minnesota high school varsity esports league, MNVL.

Sixty-nine schools and more than 1,000 students participate. Wisdom hosts the state finals every May.

“Students run the broadcasts, they make graphics, they run the social media accounts, and so helping them to learn critical life skills that may help them move on to adults,” Gluck said. 

On the top level, behind the bar, the pros have a space to play.

Wisdom became the home for T'Wolves Gaming, the NBA 2K League team owned by the Minnesota Timberwolves, in February. The team consists of five players and the Timberwolves rank in the top five every year.

Michael Key, also known as Bear Da Beast, is in his fifth year as the team’s point guard.

“I played video games all my life and now I get to do it for a living," Key said. "Nobody could convince me, I’ll have a debate with anybody. I got the best job in the world.”

The 31-year-old former college basketball player from North Carolina helped lead the Timberwolves to a championship in his first season, after making the pivot from a furniture salesman.

“I remember my first year, my rookie year, we're playing for $350,000 on one series," Key said. "That's a lot, just the money alone. Then you start to add in now they're like, ‘Hey, Bear is starting to become the best point guard,’ now they start to big you up, now you got that pressure to perform. Can’t have no bad game now.”

Key’s done quite well for himself, getting paid by the Timberwolves on top of his Twitch, YouTube and endorsement incomes.

It's the realization of just how far fun and games can go.

“I grew up in a $30,000 house," Key said. "So, when tax time came, it was always, 'Let's get some money.' Well, for the first time in my life, I paid taxes this year and I'm scratching my head. I'm clearing six figures and I'm like this is a different lifestyle. So, I don't have bad days in life. I don't.”

Perspective and prosperity, leading them to the next level in the game of life.

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