NMCC student Matthew Lenehan (right) and Falcon Esports teammate Gavin Cote take part in a practice session on Thursday, Feb. 6. Credit: Melissa Lizotte | Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Video gaming as a structured sport is gaining momentum in Maine colleges and universities.

Since launching its first ever esports team, Northern Maine Community College — the first college north of Bangor to take up the sport — has seen many students thrive not just as enthusiastic video gamers, but also as team players and academic scholars.

Last October, the college’s Falcons esports team welcomed 28 students who meet weekly to practice various gaming skills in preparation for virtual competitions with other college teams from across the country.

After Central Maine Community College in Auburn opened its esports arena in 2019, Chris Perry — Northern Maine Community College’s systems specialist and esports coordinator — and colleagues traveled to the campus to research whether an esports team would be beneficial to students in Aroostook County.

Perry said that despite many commonly believed ideas that video gaming can negatively affect students’ academic performance and physical activity, his team has helped change perceptions about the sport.

“Esports is an outlet for students to be part of a team, have an activity to relieve stress and become more involved with their school,” Perry said. “They’ve learned a lot of communication, critical thinking, hand-eye coordination and how to make decisions on the fly.”

All Northern Maine Community College students are required to maintain a GPA of 2.0 or above, practice gaming for no longer than 15 hours per week and spend a minimum of two hours per week at the college’s Smith Wellness Center. Team members are also part of the the school’s student senate.

The college’s Falcons esports team is a member of the Eastern College Athletic Conference, which has more than 200 esports teams from 50 colleges, universities and schools across the United States.

Central Maine Community College, Thomas College in Waterville and Bates College in Lewiston were the first colleges in Maine to form esports teams. Perry said there has been interest among Aroostook County high schools in starting esports programs as well.

The Falcons took part in its first esports competition against Pennsylvania College of Technology on Wednesday, Feb. 5. Although they lost, the Falcons plan to use the recordings of games and practices to analyze their mistakes, develop further team strategies and improve future performances.

The 28 students on the team are divided into leagues, which each practice and compete on a specific video game: League of Legends, Hearthstone, Madden NFL, Overwatch, Rocket League, Super Smash Bros Ultimate and Rainbow Six Siege.

Students’ long-term goals involve qualifying for the ECAC esports playoffs later this semester.

Nursing student Matthew Lenehan said that the Falcons team members have become “like a family” and likely would not have met had they not joined esports because they are in varying academic majors.

“I’ve met people who are now some of my best friends,” Lenehan said. “There’s a sense of community here.”

Gavin Cote, a liberal studies major, said that esports has given him greater motivation to succeed academically and become part of the campus community.

“As players, we’re all focused on improving our skills for competition, but we all know the real reason we’re here is to be in school,” Cote said.

People who wish to learn more about the Falcons’ competition schedule or watch live streams of competitions can go to esports.nmcc.edu.