NCU, UO students seek esports glory

As published in The Register Guard on October 21, 2018 by Christian Hill.

As team-based video game competitions grow in popularity, Northwest Christian University is offering partial scholarships to gamers, and the University of Oregon has added esports as a club sport

Behind a door secured by a keypad lock, three college students sit at a large table in a dark blue and gray room, ears covered by headphones and eyes riveted to computer screens.

The students aren’t in a study hall or laboratory poring over data or attempting to seize deep meaning in a work of classic literature. That becomes abundantly clear when, with a press of a mouse button, one of the students vanquishes a digital avatar.

Welcome to Northwest Christian University’s new gaming arena. And say hello to one of the half-dozen students-athletes whom the university offered a partial scholarship to play video games.

“It’s insane,” said Bretton Lloyd, 18. “I love telling people. It’s the greatest thing ever, especially all of my younger family members. It’s just so funny seeing them, ‘What? You get to play video games and go to college,’ and their parents cover their ears when we’re talking.”

In case you haven’t followed video games for a while, they are light-years past “Asteroids” and “Super Mario Bros.” Gaming has transformed into a burgeoning spectator sport that draws tens of thousands of people to tournaments in colorfully lit arenas and hundreds of thousands to watch major tournaments live on Twitch, basically the ESPN of video games.

Competitive video gaming, commonly known as esports, is becoming big business, with professional teams and events sponsored by major companies, including Coca-Cola, Intel and Red Bull. One estimate predicts the industry will generate close to $1 billion in revenue this year.

And, increasingly, colleges and universities, small and large, are embracing that interest to drive student recruitment and enhance campus life.

It’s celebration time in Lane County when the Ducks football team wins an overtime thriller against one of its biggest rivals, the Washington Huskies. But remember, too, that nationally televised football games are basically a three-hour commercial for the University of Oregon, putting its name and brand in front of countless prospective applicants and their parents.

That is the major reason NCU, a private Christian liberal arts college that’s literally in the UO’s shadow, added esports as its 15th varsity sport earlier this year, and has committed to spend tens of thousands of dollars to offer scholarships — it’s the first academic institution in Oregon to do so — construct the gaming arena and even hire a part-time head coach.

Michael Fuller, NCU’s chief enrollment and student development officer, said his emphasis when he arrived on campus in 2005 was to grow enrollment, then 400 students.

Toward that end, NCU quintupled the number of athletic teams to 15. NCU’s student population is now 800, including 185 student-athletes.

“We sort of saw this as something you’d look at not a lot different than lacrosse,” he said of esports. “It’s a sport that’s fast, it’s growing, and we would be silly to ignore it.

“And, more so, why wouldn’t we embrace it? A lot of positives that could come out of a strong esports program are not a lot different than a lot of positives that come out of a strong basketball program,” Fuller said, pointing to community, discipline and mentorship.

UO gets in the gaming

David Gugliotti, 31, a competitive gamer and second-year graduate student at the UO, wants what NCU has. And his club took a big step in that direction last summer.

Gugliotti is co-president of UO Esports, a competitive esports team that the university recently added as one of its more than 40 club sports, joining badminton, cycling and ultimate Frisbee.

“It really adds that legitimacy to what we’re doing,” he said.

But Gugliotti, who’s pursuing a master’s degree in sports marketing, says it’s time for the UO to take the next step of designating esports as a varsity sport and following in NCU’s footsteps in terms of investment.

While NCU students can practice and play together in a room with high-end computers and a designated high-speed Internet connection, University of Oregon Esports teammates play apart on their own computers while hoping their campus Wi-Fi signal stays strong.

Some university administrators are interested, but others see video games as more of a deterrent than a benefit because of concerns about violence and the long-held stereotype of gamers as anti-social, Gugliotti said.

Over the summer, the UO Division of Student Life paid Gugliotti and Tanner Anderson, the club’s other co-president, $11 an hour for an eight-week research project to detail the landscape of esports on campus, how it could benefit the UO and the authors’ own “vision of grandeur,” as Gugliotti put it.

In the coming weeks, the two students will make presentations to administrators at various UO departments.

Kathie Stanley, associate vice president and chief of staff of UO’s Division of Student Life, said the aim of the research project she approved is to detail the role of esports at the university currently.

“As the popularity grows on college campuses around the country, there are more places where gaming begins to intersect with things in the administrative realm, sponsorship issues, possible intersections with athletics … the desire for branded jerseys, space needs — the list goes on and on,” she said.

With the information in hand, Stanley said, the university “can then work with students and staff to navigate any issues that might be identified that need our attention, as well as explore whether or not the UO could or should become more formally involved in esports.”

Gugliotti said esports offers the UO more than student recruitment potential. It provides a safe and fun campus activity, career opportunities in graphic design, and broadcast — yes, there’s play-by-play and color announcers during video game tournaments — and leadership training.

“There is a huge gaming opportunity … going unserved right now, and this a great way to engage with those students,” he said.

Big 10 and Pac-12 action

While varsity esports programs have initially been the domain of smaller colleges, major universities are increasingly starting to jump in.

Earlier this month, Ohio State University announced a sweeping esports program across five colleges that includes varsity teams, an entire curriculum with undergraduate and graduate degree and research. The university will build a gaming arena with 80 seats, computer, console and virtual reality systems, and a broadcast booth.

The University of Utah is the first Pac-12 school to have a varsity esports program, which is managed apart from its athletics department. It has 30 players and coaches, and players receive a $1,000-a-year scholarship.

The University of California at Berkeley, which also offers gaming scholarships, announced earlier this year a partnership with a professional gaming team that includes the opening of an esports community center.

In 2016, the Pac-12 announced its intent to organize and broadcast esports competitions between its schools — the first college athletics conference to take such a step.

But the conference then quietly killed the initiative. The now-shuttered gaming website Compete reported there were concerns about how a Pac-12 esports league could comply with federal requirements for gender equity in education under Title IX — as gaming has historically been male-dominated — and with the NCAA’s own strong stance on amateurism. Today, even an average gamer willing to take the time and make the commitment can earn money through subscriptions and donations streaming on Twitch; the service’s most popular streamers can pull down hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.

A spokesman for the UO athletics department said its conversations about participating in the league were “very preliminary in nature.”

The NCAA did contract with a Chicago-based consultant to further study esports. Its report was due last spring. In response to an inquiry about the report, a spokesman said the NCAA “does not have any public updates or additional comments to provide at this time.”

With college athletics’ biggest player on the sidelines, a 2-year-old nonprofit organization has made a play to become the governing body for collegiate varsity esports.

The National Association of Collegiate Esports now has more than 100 members, including NCU, compared to about 30 a year ago, said Michael Brooks, the organization’s founder and executive director.

NACE sets rules, organizes events and tournaments, and helps institutions get their esports programs off the ground. More than six months ago, Brooks said, he still was explaining to colleges and universities what competitive gaming is.

“There’s a huge dearth of information,” he said. “That’s rapidly changed.”

But Brooks acknowledges collegiate esports faces challenges more traditional sports do not.

No one owns basketball or football. But game publishers own the team-based video games with the greatest popularity in esports, including “Overwatch,” “League of Legends” and “Rocket League.”

As a result, it’s the publishers rather than the colleges and universities that dictate how games are played and are first in line to receive the revenue.

“You’re not the one in the driver’s seat, and that is counter to how all colleges and university have operated,” he said.

Longevity is another concern, Brooks said, noting uncertainty about whether a popular esports game that an institution invests in through scholarship money could fall off the map after a year or so.

“Nobody is worried about basketball, football, soccer or baseball disappearing in five years,” Brooks said. “They’ve been around for a long time. They’ll continue to be around for a long time. That’s not true for esports.”

Brooks likened the current state of esports to a “Wild West” where many, including colleges and universities, see opportunity but with order yet to be established.

But he noted that the college students of tomorrow are online, and gaming is a core interest for many of them.

“A lot of smaller institutions are seeing incredible success with their esports programs, and I think a lot of larger state programs are trying to figure out if this is an opportunity for us to spread our brand outside of traditional athletics,” Brooks said.

Northwest leader

If collegiate esports is a digital frontier, then NCU wants to be a trailblazer in the Pacific Northwest.

“If we just did it as a club, that would be great and fine, but I don’t think it would grow and we would get the student enrollment, so we wanted to really make sure if we really wanted to do this, we’re going to do it well,” Assistant Athletic Director Sarah Freeman said.

NCU spent more than $45,500 to transform a study room with a Ping-Pong table in the Burke-Griffeth Residence Hall into a gaming arena with 13 high-end computers and gaming chairs. Included in that total is an adjacent room that workers outfitted with a big-screen television and comfy chairs so students can follow the action during the coming competitions.

NCU estimated it will pay out next year between $20,000 and $40,000 in scholarships, depending on the roster size. Right now it has six players on partial scholarship and plans to add some additional walk-on students.

And they hired Taylor Lind, a 27-year-old youth pastor, NCU graduate and former “Halo 3” competitive player, as the new team’s part-time coach. NCU declined to provide his salary.

The sudden ascension of Lind, who has coached at the high school level, has been a bit dizzying. Lind said he worried how his peers in the athletics department would relate to someone who coaches video games, but they’ve given him a warm reception.

“I caught myself the first couple of times I talked with them (saying), ‘I coached basketball, too,’ just to be like I’m relatable,” he said.

But Lind faces the challenge of any coach working to mold his new team into champions.

Beacon Esports will kick off its inaugural season this spring playing “Overwatch,” a team-based first-person shooter, but Lind hopes to add more games in future seasons as more student-athletes sign on and the program grows.

In the preseason, the team is practicing, holding scrimmages, and Lind plans to review captured game footage — game tape, if you will — to identify areas where the team can improve. Competitive gaming doesn’t require scouts to evaluate talent, as many of the games have ranking systems that gauge how the player’s performance stacks up with competitors.

Another thing Lind doesn’t have to worry about in his first year is team travel as Beacon Esports can play all its games without leaving the room.

And, yes, Lind requires his team to follow a physical fitness regimen. While his players aren’t tackling 200-pound running backs or hitting a baseball 350 feet, physical activity improves cognitive performance — and lightning-quick reflexes are crucial in competitive gaming.

“For your brain to be functioning at the highest level, you have to make your body a priority,” the head coach said.

Lloyd, the student-athlete, said he’s drawn a distinction in his new role as a student-athlete.

“We don’t completely consider ourselves athletes, but we do consider what we do a sport,” said Lloyd, who is from Creswell.

NCU is providing Lloyd a $1,000-a-year scholarship. The money, combined with other academic scholarships, allowed Lloyd to attend a four-year school when he had planned to attend Lane Community College. He is studying to become a high school English teacher.

Lloyd, who plays five hours a day between classes and homework, acknowledges he’s one of the lower-ranked “Overwatch” player of the group, but his team is showing him the ropes, he’s improving and there’s good chemistry among teammates.

“I’m enjoying the experience,” he said.

Lind said he sees esports no differently from traditional sports in helping college students develop skills that guide them to future success.

“I love the idea that someday we’ll recruit a kid who may never sit on our varsity team, but is an awesome student, is an awesome part of our community and we got to make their dream come true of being part of an esports program at a college and they got a college degree out of it,” he said.

Source: NCU, UO students seek esports glory.

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