Careers in Esports: Billy Sprout

Billy Sprout is Associate Manager for Collegiate Esports at Tespa, a division of Blizzard Entertainment. He’s helped build Tespa from 10 college campuses to more than 270 chapters across North America. He loves video games – in the world of esports, he’s found his “tribe.” He’s grown personally, loves his job, and is excited to build a place where students experience community and competition. In sharing Billy’s experience, we hope to help high schoolers learn about potential paths through college to career, and to learn a little about themselves as well.

Tell us a little about your life.

I went to a really small high school, then I went on to college at the University of Connecticut, a school with more than 30,000 students. Coming from a tiny school, I was not at all socially prepared for the immensity of the campus. I was overwhelmed by the number of people and the diversity. There were a lot of friendly supportive people, but I just couldn’t find my tribe. I was struggling to find a place where I could be myself, where I was comfortable and could have fun.

Meanwhile, I started off as a business major, a general catch-all major. I tried joining on-campus clubs, but I never felt a passion or spark in the clubs I tried; I was a gamer at heart. I had a small network of online friends, so when I was struggling to connect in school, I ended up connecting online – but that just isn’t the same as having friends IRL.

I had a cheap Dell Inspiron Tower I bought (it was cheap, but it still cost me three paychecks, which is a lot when you’re in college!). I was playing DOTA online – just DOTA 1; DOTA 2 didn’t exist yet. Somehow I stumbled on the college’s gaming club. They played only Starcraft, and you had to be above a certain rank to join. That was kind of funny because it wasn’t tough to reach that rank, so I practiced all day one Saturday in order to join, and I became a legit member of the UConn Competitive Gaming Club (UCGC).

I finally had a group of people that I had a commonality with. After a year of only Starcraft, we started playing other games in the Club, like DOTA 2. We had about 15 - 20 members in the club, and I started to organize in-house tournaments where we met in person for two to three hours every other Saturday. That was awesome! I started meeting people IRL instead of online, and I was actually connecting with them. I finally had a chance to meet people who loved the same things I did through the gaming club. Other student activities I tried just didn’t connect me to the university – inside I knew that, as a college student, I should be networking, socializing, somehow building my resume and professional career, but I was so isolated that it wasn’t really happening.

How did you get involved with Tespa?

When our club leader graduated, I took on the role of president of UCGC, and we changed the focus from competitive-only to any gaming. I was organizing DOTA in-house tournaments and viewing parties to watch online games. It was awesome to be hanging out with friends! I realized that it is incredibly important to connect with people physically, not just online; there’s only so much that the internet can do to connect people. Events were more impactful for me and our club members when we held them in-person.

Because of the tournaments and viewing parties, we somehow caught the attention of Tespa. Chris Kelly, one of our founders, found me online. There were only 15-16 chapters of Tespa at that point, but they had a good progression plan for club development. I was worried that our club was too small (we were up to about 40 members), but we tentatively accepted an offer to be one of the first 30 chapters. Then I met the Rosen brothers, who were Tespa co-founders along with Chris. We met on a Mumble server, working to organize a Heroes of the Storm tournament.  

Then I went to PAX East. It was totally overwhelming! There were 20,000 people, 50 - 60 companies, tons of students looking for free stuff – and a lot of people playing chess and board games in person. That was so interesting to me; here are all these students who love online games, but they were just as excited to get together and play chess, one of the oldest strategy games with zero technology. They craved in-person play and connections just like I did.

Tespa invited me to volunteer in person at an event in Texas called Lonestar Clash. This was the first large-scale event I helped with; there were about 8,000 attendees. Our parties up to that point had a max of 90 – this was mind-blowing!

What an incredibly formative time for me. I had already seen the benefit of in-person tournaments for myself: I learned how to lead others, make decisions, and communicate. I had the chance to socialize with similar people; I even made a connection for my first on-campus job. Now I wanted to take that to a larger scale. I applied to be an intern with Tespa and was hired as one of nine. I flew west to California and interned for three months.

That was a time of great growth, opportunity, challenge, stress, and thrill. I realized this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I joined a team of system administrators for Hearthstone programs while I was still in college, and I started working with others to build Tespa chapters at other schools. I’ve been involved since the beginning, working on building student programs that create a fun space for community and competition.

If I’d found a gaming club like NASEF’s in high school, I believe I could have started my journey much sooner.

I continued working for Tespa as I worked my way through my degree. What a crazy pathway! I started in Business Administration. Then I thought maybe I wanted to be an engineer so I tried Mechanical Engineering – one class and I hated it. I switched to a general Engineering program, but after a few more classes I found that wasn’t right either. I settled into Computer Science and Engineering, which is where I graduated. It’s a rampant problem that students have to declare majors so early. I took six or seven classes I didn’t need, wasting a lot of time and money. I think a degree-agnostic approach makes more sense until you really know.

What do you think about NASEF putting esports clubs into high school?

I’m so excited to see gaming clubs in high school! I kind of wrote off my high school years socially. If I’d found a gaming club like NASEF’s in high school, I believe I could have started my journey much sooner. If we’d been able to play and connect IRL and not just online, I would have been so much better and had so many more social skills, instead of just communicating online with everyone. It is definitely different. I have so much hope for this next generation of people who are getting to connect with their tribe so much earlier.

What’s your opinion of the social climate in esports right now?

I am incredibly optimistic for the future of conduct in esports and gaming. I’m certain that the stringent conduct requirements and the efforts of Blizzard, Tespa, NASEF, Twitch, and others will pay off. Thoughtful, kind players will evolve. There are a lot of issues of toxicity in the ecosystem right now, but I think those people will be gone in 10 years, through the combined efforts of publishers and their grassroots communities. Most people are not like that! Toxicity is not perpetrated by the majority, it’s a small minority that’s vocal, but they’ve been able to act with impunity. That’s changing.

I see esports making a big impact on diversity. Even today, it’s way better than traditional sports. Gender is irrelevant to game play. Physical barriers don’t exist. As we improve the environment, it will be an even better place to play and develop.

We want the next generation to realize that toxicity is not only bad for the esports environment, it’s also detrimental to your future career and your reputation. Already I’ve seen incredible improvement over the past couple years at the college level, as players have evolved into thoughtful people and strong leaders. Getting together IRL helps with that. You develop a depth of empathy when you look someone in the eyes vs. playing online only. You realize that person you’re playing with or against – all people – have feelings and a life, and they don’t want to be called those words. Besides battling toxicity, live play will overcome the gamer’s stigma of being non-social. Esports in person becomes not just an escape from reality, it gives high school students a chance to learn from each other.

What’s your college and career advice for high schoolers?

When I started college, I was just stabbing in the dark to figure out my path. I was like most people. When you’re in high school, you’re still trying to figure out what you want to do; only a handful of people really know. The others are bluffing or scrambling.

There’s an incredible pressure to make decisions that will impact the rest of your life when you’re still young. I would recommend staying undeclared that first year of college; it’s irresponsible to spend money on specific classes without knowing what you want to keep doing long-term.

Don’t freak out too much about your future. Find your tribe, be connected, make real friends in real life, work on your education. And don’t worry, everything will be OK!

Join your high school and college esports clubs to get some early experience in the esports industry. But play it safe! Esports is a new industry, only 10 years old – the jobs and companies are not entrenched. Startups are spinning up and down in a year. Have a plan A and B, and make sure your academic path sets you up for success for both of those plans. Most esports jobs have a parallel in another industry, for example the work you do for an esports show or streaming games is similar to other jobs and roles in TV and film. Focused on building resumes that people will need in the whole ecosystem, not just one game, and not just in competition. Rather than an esports-specific career/education path, get a degree that will allow you to pursue other avenues over time.

What you do in your job?

Hmm, wow! Tespa provides opportunities to connect, play, and compete to college students, and now to high school students too. We’re very member-focused; our programs aren’t for us, they are designed to be enjoyed and participated in by student bodies.

There’s no day-to-day routine, and it changes based on the time of year. My primary focus is league operations and strategy. I do daily work on operations: settling match disputes, reviewing match reports to be sure everyone is playing on the up-and-up, and having lots of interaction with schools and players via Discord or email. If a program isn’t going on at the moment, our awesome tournament admin team handles those details. I might be planning the next roster of tournaments or producing broadcasts for those tournaments. Last semester I produced multiple shows for Overwatch, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm. I coordinate broadcast staffing, the transmission team, make sure the tournament admins are ready for players.

Lately I’ve had the opportunity to talk directly with a LOT of colleges. The college varsity ecosystem is building at an incredible speed; many schools want to get involved because of the benefits to the students. Most college administrations aren’t familiar with esports, so they’re seeking advice and guidance on establishing a program. I’m probably doing five or six calls per week with new schools, either faculty/admin or the students. I'll never pass up an opportunity to advise them, to share my experience and what we’ve learned from others, so the schools can develop quality programs. It’s awesome to see NASEF doing the same thing and taking that vision of community and competition into high schools, with high expectations for kind behavior and leadership development. I’m excited to see the pipeline that’s developing right now.

If you had a crystal ball, what would you say is needed in for esports the next five or six years? What skills should students develop?

I hate to say it, but who knows exactly?! This is such a new industry! For sure the next two to three years will define the next 10. I’m seeing way more universities get involved. I estimate that 90 percent of colleges will support recreational esports soon, and most athletic schools will also have varsity scholarships as well.

But those scholarship athletes are just one percent of the esports population at the school. That’s why it’s important to support the full ecosystem of students in all roles. Stay game agnostic – just look at Fortnite; two years ago it was nothing and now – WOW! The games will change but esports will remain. The focus on the community aspect and the incredible social impacts will grow. Gaming clubs will be the biggest on campus (and well-funded too). Brands will be bought in at an incredible level because generation Z is impossible to reach in other ways. There’s a similar level of sponsorship and brand possibilities as traditional sports have now. Massive reach is more possible because of the incredible connectivity that technology gives our players.

Do you have any advice for high schoolers? Something you wish you’d known when you were in school?

Don’t freak out too much about your future. Find your tribe, be connected, make real friends in real life, work on your education. And don’t worry, everything will be OK!