With esports growing quickly throughout higher education, these four tips can help those interested in starting their own program

What you need to start an esports program

With esports growing quickly throughout higher education, these four tips can help those interested in starting their own program

Esports is seeing phenomenal growth, with the worldwide market expected to reach $2.2 billion by 2023. There are professional esports leagues for popular video games such as Overwatch, League of Legends, Rocket League, Call of Duty, Halo, Fortnite, and more.

As the popularity of esports continues to increase, colleges and universities have begun embracing esports as well. Last year, some 200 U.S. colleges offered about $16 million in esports scholarships, NBC News reports. That’s a threefold increase in scholarship money since 2015.

Related content: 5 ways esports is impacting higher education today

“With the growth at the professional level, esports has drawn the attention of college administrations who now realize that it is a legitimate industry—[and one] that appeals to their core demographic,” says Patrick Ocampo, director of membership services and sales for the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE).

With esports enjoying huge popularity among teens, “it’s important for colleges to develop [esports] programs in order to help drive participation and enrolment,” he says.

NACE oversees varsity esports at U.S. colleges and universities and has about 160 members, most of whom offer esports scholarships. “Competition starts with the game developers, who control the licenses to their products,” Ocampo explains. “They decide whether they want to run competition themselves or allow outside organizations to do so. In our case, we have agreements with the makers of Rocket League, CS:GO, SMITE, and Fortnite to run national-level competitions in those games.”

For other games, like Overwatch and League of Legends, national competitions are run by subsidiaries of the game makers, but colleges can organize tournaments. “We encourage our members to participate in any collegiate competition, as long as (they) continue to follow NACE guidelines,” Ocampo says.

Many colleges also have club teams that participate in non-NACE leagues. “Many of them are quite successful and well-run, but the disadvantage there is that students aren’t always as committed,” he notes. “It really comes down to the strength of the club’s leadership.”

Park University, a private institution in Parkville, Mo., with about 11,000 total students, launched a varsity esports program during the 2018-19 school year. The program began last spring with a League of Legends team and expanded this year to include four teams in three different games, with 22 participants, says Head Coach Ashley Jones.

To support its esports program, the university built an underground gaming facility with 16 gaming stations and a giant interactive whiteboard for making notes. There is also a spectator area down the hall, but most matches are viewed on a live Twitch stream. After weekend tournaments, the players come into the facility on Monday, watch video of their matches, and discuss what they did well and what they need to improve.

Like any other varsity sport, the players practice four days a week for two or three hours at a time. They start with stretching exercises for their wrists, shoulders, and chests, then review game footage and do scrimmaging or individual training. “The biggest benefit for the players is the sense of community they get from it,” Jones says. “They get to feel like part of a team. I see a lot of bonds and friendships emerge from the program.”

Four key steps

If you’re looking to create an esports program at your own institution, here are four steps to doing so effectively:

Hire a good administrator. “It’s very important that your head coach or director understand the goals of a college program, even if they are only familiar with esports at an amateur level,” Ocampo says. “It’s possible to find good coaching online or even from students with the appropriate supervision, but it’s much more important to have a program head who has the organizational and personal skills to be a good administrator, leader, and spokesperson for the program.”

Build your facility. “You need to have a dedicated esports facility with gaming computers, peripherals, and furniture, as well as a dedicated internet connection that isn’t used by the rest of the campus,” Ocampo says.

Each competition station should include a mid-range to high-end gaming computer (around 4.4Ghz processing speed), with 24-inch monitors that have a minimum refresh rate of 144Hz (144 times per second). The computers should be plugged into a secure, dedicated internet connection of at least 1 Gbps, with a ping rate of 20 milliseconds or less. Wireless connectivity isn’t preferable for gaming.

Competition stations also should include a keyboard, adjustable mouse, headset with microphone, and gaming chair. Most gamers like to use their own adjustable gaming mice, but you should invest in some backups.

Treat esports as you would any other varsity program. “Your athletes need good physical fitness, nutrition, and most importantly they need to be valued and encouraged by the staff and students at their institution,” Ocampo says.

Look to others for help. “Talk to us here at NACE,” Ocampo says. “I’m willing to speak with any university staff interested in learning about how to develop a program, and in our first call we share all the information you’ll need to get your program up and running. We do not ask for membership dues unless your school is looking for material support through our partnerships or wishes to participate in competition. Startup advice is always free.”

“NACE is a huge resource for new esports programs,” Jones observes. “I would also recommend that you look to other institutions and see what they’ve done. Visit other schools, tour their gaming facilities, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Everybody is still learning, and I’ve found that people are more than happy to help. The more numbers we get, the more collegiate esports will be taken seriously.”

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