On Nov. 26, Ohio State is hosting Michigan in the most highly anticipated college football game of the regular season. The Buckeyes and Wolverines are each 10-0 and second and third, respectively, in the College Football Playoff rankings.
Six days before that game, several players on each team will be facing off in a different venue. On Sunday, they will be competing in an online Fortnite tournament featuring eight Ohio State teams and eight Michigan teams.
The winning team will split $25,000, while the winning school’s esports program will get an additional $25,000 as well as a trophy that the tournament’s organizer claims is valued at $5,000. The event is expected to last about two and a half hours, so the winner will be determined on Sunday.
Each team will have a current athlete (mostly football players), a former athlete (mostly football players), a current student from the school’s esports teams and a professional esports player/social media influencer. All of the competitors will be paid for participating, and the current players will make additional money as part of name, image and likeness (NIL) deals with Epic Games, Inc., Fortnite’s publisher.
The tournament will be broadcast on Nick “Nickmercs” Kolcheff’s MFAM Gauntlet Twitch channel. Nickmercs has 6.6 million followers on Twitch and is one of the world’s most popular esports competitors. The other people involved in the event will also stream the game on their social media channels, either Instagram or Twitter.
The current players expected to compete in the tournament include Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, Ohio State running back Miyan Williams, Ohio State defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau, Michigan receiver Roman Wilson and Michigan All-American kicker Jake Moody. The former players include ex-Ohio State quarterbacks Braxton Miller, Troy Smith and Cardale Jones and ex-Michigan quarterbacks Devin Gardner and Shea Patterson.
Epic Games is funding the event, which is being organized by eFuse, an esports technology and infrastructure startup based in Columbus, Ohio that has raised $8.3 million in venture funding since its founding in August 2018. NIL Management, a Columbus-based NIL consulting and management company, is also involved, as is Valiant Management Group, a sports marketing agency representing Michigan athletes.
Epic uses eFuse’s technology to run its collegiate Fortnite leagues, which have about 600 colleges competing. Earlier this year, eFuse co-founder and chief executive Matthew Benson approached Epic about the Ohio State-Michigan event and tying it to the week of the football game, which is known as “The Big Game” and dates to 1897.
“We said, ‘Hey, we can take this same (technology) and go run a combination of collegiate esports plus big influencers and merge the two into this event,” Benson said.
He added: “When (football players) come home at night, what are they doing? They’re playing video games, they’re playing Fortnite. What we wanted to do was take the celebrity that they’ve built in the ranks of traditional sports and pair that with the gaming ecosystem that they’re so passionate about outside of it and basically bring the two together in this iconic event that showcases the best rivalry in all of sports.”
Ohio State and Michigan each have hundreds of students who compete against other colleges in esports events or among themselves as part of on-campus clubs. But this is the first time the Buckeyes and Wolverines will meet in a head-to-head format.
“There really hasn’t been an event like this, specifically focusing on the rivalry, that I know of in esports, especially at the college level,” said John Price, Ohio State’s esports manager who oversees the school’s on-campus, 3,500-square-foot esports arena and the school’s esports teams. “I think that’s one of the best parts of it. It’s a first step into a new part of collegiate esports.”
Benson said he hopes the Ohio State-Michigan esports tournament will become an annual late November tradition on the week of the school’s football game. He is also looking at expanding the format to other college sports rivalries such as North Carolina and Duke.
“We look at this as a blueprint of how you can blend traditional sports with esports and bring them together in this crescendo moment that is financially successful for both sides,” Benson said. “But it’s also (about) bringing together passions and showcases what esports can do for rivalries and for Universities. That’s really what we we’re trying to do is build a blueprint that we can go replicate this with other rivalries and other schools.”