Q&A With Chris Gaul

Written By Amanda Andrews

Christopher Gaul is the head coach of Point Park University’s esports division, a new athletic program at the university. He was hired on in March 2020 and is leading his teams into their first season this semester. 


Q: You have been involved in esports for a very long time. How did you first become interested in esports and when did that happen?

A: So I first got into esports when I was in late middle school. I was really playing a lot of video games at the time. It was sort of becoming a big passion of mine and I was getting very very good at them. I found that the time that I was putting in was paying off in terms of skill level, and I was becoming much, much better than I ever expected to be. And that was when I started to realize that there were people out there that played competitively, and there were competitive scenes for the very good players. So I started looking into that, and I ran into some people as I was playing at very high levels. I would play with people who were in these scenes play[ing] often just randomly. So I started to get to know people that were already in competitive scenes, and it sort of snowballed from there. When I went into high school, I continued that and kept playing and then towards the end of my high school career I was asked to go and sort of move into a house and play on a semi-pro team. Obviously, I couldn’t do that because at that time that was not a career path that you could reasonably take, so I declined and went to college. And I continued to play competitively through college, but it was all semi-pro Tier II stuff just because I didn’t have the time to put in for a professional team. And the team I was playing with . . . we weren’t getting any big breaks to get signed by anybody or anything. And then sort of as I transitioned out of playing competitively, I really still enjoyed esports, and I had a lot of knowledge about what it looked like to be a part of esports and what the esports industry looked like. And so it was sort of a natural move from there.  


Q: When did you consider yourself an esports athlete? 

A: I would say the end of high school through the first two to three years of my undergrad. 


Q: Esports is very new to Point Park especially, but my understanding is that it is very new to being accepted into the mainstream sports scene. With your knowledge of the industry, how has esports changed and how has public perception of it changed over time?

A: I would say public perception of it has changed on the whole . . . little to none. I think that your average individual, everyday “Joe Schmo” still has no idea what esports is. Maybe they were up late one night and they saw it on ESPN or something like that or maybe they have a cousin who talks about it. So there is definitely some change happening. I was talking to a reporter the other day, and they were asking me a lot of questions that they were like ‘I’m very excited for the day when esports is something like football where you don’t have to explain what’s going on before you write the article. I can just write the article and assume that everybody has a general understanding of what I’m talking about.’ And I think that we’re still a little bit of a distance from there, but I think it is changing, especially with people who are more in tune with sort of where especially tech markets are going and where the sports industry is sort of leaning towards. I think that they are starting to understand it and have heard of it and are starting to get on board with it, but I still think there is a very large paradigm shift that has to happen for the general public to understand that this is not just people playing video games because they like video games. People genuinely work just as hard as traditional athletes to be at the top of their field. 


Q: Right out of college, you accepted a position at NOVA as their inaugural head coach and director, and now you are the head coach of the Point Park esports team. Were you expecting your career to involve esports? 

A: So when I was leaving undergrad, I was applying to more general positions. I was just looking around, trying to figure out where I wanted to end up and what jobs I thought I could do. And there came a time where I realized that I had a huge amount of knowledge in esports and that I could do that if I really wanted to and I really put myself out there for it. So I sort of changed my shift and my focus and directed it fully towards esports. And from that point, I started doing some—and when I was in undergrad, I worked a lot in student life so sort of the marriage between those two things led me to college esports. So from there, I did a lot of freelance consultant work with other universities to sort of help them understand what it looked like to have an esports program, what esports was, what they would need to do to implement it, the costs, the league, the games, all these things. From there I ended up with a position at NOVA and then I wanted to—originally I’m from around this area and my family lives around this area so I wanted to end up back here. And that’s how I ended up at Point Park.  


Q: What have your early successes meant for you? 

A: That’s strange, I guess I never looked at it like that. I don’t know. I don’t know if I would consider myself overly successful. I would just say that I sort of just took my expertise and my passion and applied it to something that a lot of people wanted at the time, I sort of got lucky with the timing. But I think at the end of the day, I have been lucky that all the timing worked out and I have the expertise and I was able to make these things happen, but the biggest thing is that there’s been a lot of work along the way. And similar to what I touched on earlier with everything being underfunded and a lot of people not understanding really what esports is and what esports is good, they just know they want it. A lot of things fall back on me for them to just say ‘you know I don’t understand esports you figure it out.’ So I think there’s been a lot of long days and hard work that goes into these things, but at the end of the day, it’s very worth it. It’s very rewarding, especially when the kids come in and you get to see the team come together and everyone’s having a good time and you’re putting on games and the kids are being successful—those are the moments that make it all worth it. 


Q: Pivoting more to your roles at Point Park, another one of the positions you have in the athletics department is compliance coordinator. Could you describe a lot bit about what you do in that position? 

A: So basically in that position, I oversee all of the eligibility for all of the other sports in a very basic way. I oversee all of it, but I have a graduate assistant that really works with it every day because obviously, I’m a full-time coach for two different sports and a director so I don’t have all the time in the world to devote to it, but it is a very very crucial part of the department, so they brought me on to understand the rules, make sure that I can teach the new undergraduate assistants as they come in, what’s going on, what they need to be doing, what’s expected of them, working with eligibility, how important eligibility is. So yeah pretty much the end all be all is that I oversee all of the eligibility for all the other traditional athletic sports. 


Q: Point Park has built a facility specifically for esports, with a high-speed data network. So that means that the team is not using Point Park student WIFI for any of the games? 

A: That’s correct. 


Q: Are there any students playing remotely, and how are you overcoming that potential obstacle? 

A: I have one student currently who is playing remotely. It’s something that I highly encourage against, one because there’s obviously the obstacle of internet connection that could be an issue, equipment could be an issue, any of that stuff. And that’s something that I just want to avoid altogether, so I encourage all people to not play remotely. The only reason he is allowed to play remotely is because of some extraneous circumstances. But I pretty much encourage everyone to not play remotely for some of those reasons as well as it doesn’t allow the students to build the same camaraderie and allow the students see of their other teammates’ energies and be really present with them as they’re learning and growing together and then competing together as well. 


Q: So you have an 18-member team from the last update I saw. What is the team dynamic like so far? 

A: That’s hard to say because I have multiple teams, right? I have a team for Rocket League, which is one of the games I coach, and then I have a team for League of Legends, which is another game that I coach, and then I have a team of students as well that works to continue moving the program forward and sort of helps the ship move. Anything that the viewer is going to view, we have to output ourselves. So we have streams and we stream all of our games, and there has to be a certain quality of content that’s expected because we’re a part of the university and we have the support of the university so there’s a certain quality that’s expected of the content that we produce. So I have students that help me out on game day…and commentate the games and make sure the stream looks good and make sure we have the graphics for game day. There’s a lot of work that goes into it that a lot of behind the scenes stuff to make esports really what it is.  


Q: The players I’ve seen have interesting names like “NinjaB. ” Most traditional sports don’t allow players to take on different names, so is that a cultural part of esports? 

A: I think that everyone sort of has their own story with how they ended up with their username. I think that it is almost cultural I guess in a way because unlike traditional sports, your username doesn’t have to be your last name, it doesn’t have to be something that’s directly tied to you. So a lot of these players, myself included, have been using the same username since they were kids. Or they just changed their username for when they started competing. So that could be something they think is funny, it could be something that means something to them. There’s many, many reasons that people have different usernames. But I think it does add a little bit of \ anonymity to the players in a good way, especially at a professional level. If some of these people didn’t want to be bothered all the time or wanted to try and lead a normal life, I think that there can be some anonymity there with what their username is and what their real life is. I mean, I said the professional level, but that’s not really true because professional level is kind of the opposite, but even here they go on the roster, everyone knows who they are, they can look up their real name and their username, but I think that that’s where the username not being directly tied to your actual name sort of came from is that ability to have a little bit of anonymity. 


Q: So Point Park esports team is currently playing Rocket League. Are the League of Legends matches starting soon? 

A: Yes. Their matches should start on the 17th of October. They just start a little bit later than Rocket League is all.  


Q: So there are two things, beyond the computer screen, that make the esports team unique in the athletics department. The esports team is one of three co-ed teams at Point Park, and it is actually allowing students to stream their games for free on twitch.tv. Unlike the others where you have to pay to view it. So what led you to make those decisions? 

A: Well, I guess it just makes sense. Esports is a coed sport, there’s really no ifs ands or buts about it. I mean, it is a very male-dominated field at the moment, but there are no rules out there to say that women and men can’t compete on the same team and it’s unfair for whatever reason. It’s pretty much all across the board, esports is pretty much like ‘if you’re good enough, you play if you’re not good enough, sorry.’ And it doesn’t really matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from, if you’re good enough, you make the team. And that’s sort of the way that esports has been for a little while and sort of the direction that it is going. There is still some lag there, like I said it is a very male-dominated field of athletes, but it will change in the future, I’m convinced. 

And in terms of streaming free on Twitch, that’s pretty much the industry standard. All the major professional leagues all streamed on Twitch, and a lot of colleges stream on Twitch. It’s the most popular streaming platform, they do a good job of supporting their content creators and they have some tools that really work well with what makes sense. And it’s a very easy platform, a lot of people are very familiar with it. It’s an easy platform to use as a viewer. You don’t need to make an account, you don’t need to verify with your email address or give them your phone number, you just type in the URL and you can watch the game. And I think that it’s sort of just that there isn’t really another option that would make a lot of sense and would really uphold to what someone would expect when they say ‘oh my school has an esports team and I want to watch their game.’ 


Q: So just in regard to the coed thing, are there any female players on your team? 

A: Yes. My League of Legends team actually has females on it. Our Rocket League team does not, but our League of Legends team does. 


Q: How has the reception been on twitch? Have people been coming on to watch the games and have been commenting? 

A: Yeah, I think so. During the games, I’m pretty focused with the players, but after I tend to check out the [stream] . . . I know we made some mistakes with the overlay that we need to sort out for next stream, but from what I understand and the time I spent talking to people who are on staff to monitor those things, the students that monitor chat and makes sure nobody’s saying anything that’s against the rules or anything that’s inappropriate. I have people that make sure that the audio quality of the stream and the output product is good and that things make sense, so the conversations I’ve had with them, they seem to be pretty positive with there’s a lot of chat interaction happening, and there seems to be a decent amount of viewers for a brand new stream so I think it’s good.  


Q: So the pandemic has really impacted recruiting, but has it had a different impact on recruiting players for you? 

A: I mean, we pretty much suffered just as much as everyone else with recruiting. It was pretty hard to get the numbers that we wanted to hit and bring on the people that we wanted to bring on, but with COVID that’s just the way it’s going to be. And especially with myself being brought on in March for the position right as COVID sort of started, March is already pretty late in the recruiting season, and a lot of high school students have made their decisions by then, and then with COVID happening it made everything more difficult. So we definitely were in a bit of a scramble, and I hope that our recruiting gear next year looks a little bit better than our one this year did. The reason I had tryouts was I wanted to give the opportunity for people who are already at Point Park to be a part of the program and really participate if that was something they’re really interested in and they really cared about. I didn’t want them to feel like they lost the opportunity or got jipped out of the opportunity just because they came in a year earlier or they came in at a different time. 


Q: What is the typical process for esports recruiting? 

A: Yeah there’s a lot of different ways. We can do database recruiting like other sports do, those big databases where people go and enter themselves in if they want to be looked at or be recruited. There’s different third-party companies that hold streamed events where people sign up and they play and they show off their skill to colleges. There’s local events that happen, you have local high schools that have esports teams, sometimes their team competes, that can be something to pull from. And there is a very small high school league developing, so you can even look at that. And then obviously a big part of it is just sort of connections and word of mouth, which is what makes recruiting for a brand new program so difficult because you don’t have that network of people. Especially for myself, coming from Washington DC, all my connections and all of my network was down there, so I didn’t really have anything coming into this position. I didn’t know any local businesses or any local people or any people that sort of knew players around this area so I was starting brand new. But we’ll have that developed, and we shouldn’t have a problem in the future. 


Q: How has coaching been for you this year and what does training look like for an esports team? 

A: It’s long, and it’s late. So we have practices later in the evenings like starting as early as like five and then going as late as till 11 or midnight. And the reason that we have to do that is because a lot of our practices look like us scrimmaging other teams, other college teams, other amateur teams, any team that we can find that is of similar skill level and is willing to scrimmage us at a time that we can make work. We scrimmage them, and they get on from where they are, and we get on from where we are and we practice our different things and they practice their different things. And it means nothing, no one really cares that much about the outcome, it’s not recorded anywhere, it’s just like a scrimmage. And that’s the best way that we can get practice because we can ensure 100-percent that the other team is trying and that they’re communicating and that they’re on the same level that we are, that they’re trying to accomplish the same things that we are. And so, you’re pretty much at the whim of when other teams practice and if other teams are practicing late. If you want scrimmages and decent practice, you’re gonna practice late too. And then obviously we also do film review . . . we watch back the games, and we go over what we did wrong and we rewind and go in slow-motion and check everything out and look at why our players are doing things, what their decision-making process was like in the moment, if there was a decision-making error, mechanical error and how we can fix that for the future . . . and all that sort of stuff. 


Q: And are you using Discord for communication? 

A: Yeah, we use Discord for pretty much everything. If you’re not in our Discord, you should join. It’s a good place to get all the updates and information about our program . . . We practice in the Discord, it’s where I talk to all the players in the Discord, it’s where anybody can ask me questions, it’s how I approach all my players to get a hold of me, if anything changes with the practice times or anything. I use Discord more than I use my email. 


Q: What do scholarships for Point Park esports athletes look like? 

A: We have the same scholarship offers that traditional sports do. So anything that one of our traditional sports can offer, we can as well. We give out scholarships to new players, incoming students, transfer students. Walk-ons unfortunately are not able to receive scholarships, but any incoming freshmen or new student is able to get a scholarship. 


Q: So the team had a very good first week playing against Penn College, but lost against Lackawanna College and RMU. What is the strategy moving forward for the team? 

A: Oh my god, you tell me honestly. No, but one of the big things that we need to work on is a few of our players—pretty much all of the players, we just have these moments where, especially in Rocket League, everything happens so fast and is so cascade-y where like if you made a mistake 30 seconds ago, it can still be hurting you 30, 40 seconds down the line because of the way everything is tied together. So we really have to clean up those little mistakes where maybe we cheat up in the wrong place or we cut off our rotation in a weird way and it hurts us for 20, 30, 40 seconds. And then we get stuck on defense in a bad way and we just get caught in a bad spot because we made that one mistake. And I think us understanding the importance of those mistakes and cleaning up that little bit will help our gameplay a lot. 


Q: What is your mission as the first coach of the first-ever esports team at Point Park?

A: I think first and foremost the mission to obviously win and do well is important to us. I think it’s also very important to us to bring light to what college esports is and really put out our best foot forward to not only the students of Point Park, but also the executives and the administrative teams at Point Park and how they’re understanding this is what esports is. Our students work just as hard as the traditional athletes, we compete just as much. It’s just a little bit different, and that doesn’t make it bad, that doesn’t make it something that should be frowned upon, that doesn’t make it something that isn’t legitimate or real. And because esports is such a new and growing industry, I think being able to provide the students with the opportunity to really get into the field if that’s what they want to do and grow as individuals within esports. In short, we have a lot of missions.