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Software and Facilities Considerations for Campuses Starting Esports Programs

Andy Berg
[Photo courtesy of Columbia College]
[Photo courtesy of Columbia College]

Chris Allison, CEO of Geex, an esports hosting platform, is aware of the debate around whether video games should be a part of the higher-education experience, and he's not shy in lobbying for their inclusion on campus wherever they might find a home.

"I think that I would point them toward any of the research that's out there regarding an affinity group, or a student who likes to engage in a larger community through an activity and how that type of engagement and that community connectivity will increase their perceived sense of community and ultimately improve retention rates," Allison says. "I really do look at esports and gaming as a new medium that accomplishes all the same goals as we have with higher education."

While some argue that video games are just that — games — and should be relegated to the basement or residence hall room, it's hard to dismiss the fact that collegiate recreation departments across the country are actively seeking to promote inclusion on campus through esports intramural programs — many whose ultimate goal is a place within the athletics department. In fact, a growing number of schools have already granted their fledgling esports programs varsity status, and earmarked the scholarship dollars to go with it.

With that elevating stature come loftier wants and needs. To that end, colleges and universities are building facilities large and small to accommodate what can only be described as atypical practices and tournaments by traditional athletic department standards. Whether you call it gaming or esports, video games and the hordes of students who love them are coming to a campus near you. Here's a look at a few things to consider if your school aspires to enter the esports arena.
 

Logistics
Launching an esports program — be it a club, intramural or varsity athletics team — isn't easy. There's a lot to learn and a lot of choices to make. GgCircuit, which bills itself as an esports services platform, works with about 35 colleges, and the company is approached by five to 10 schools per week inquiring about what they need to do to get started. "That's a pretty long process for universities to get set up," says ggCircuit CEO Zack Johnson.

For most universities, getting their game on means trying to figure out the basics and where esports fits into their organization. "They're trying to squeeze in extra work on somebody in some department," Johnson says. "Most of them don't just right off the bat say, 'Hey, why don't we just hire someone to be in charge of our esports plan?' So usually it's a club leader, or it might be an athletic director, or somebody from the tech school inside the college."

While companies like ggCircuit and Geex specialize in the software platforms that host leagues and tournaments, both Johnson and Allison admit that they're often forced into the role of consultant. "They're wanting to know what it takes to get into this, and how much it costs to build dedicated space. 'Should we just build it for the five League of Legends players at our school, or should we build it for all 21,000 students at our school to be able to utilize?' "

As part of a solution, ggCircuit offers prospective clients a series of case studies that represent programs of different sizes, but Johnson says additional help is on the way. "It's just such a broad thing, and we're the experts because we built the software and we've run the centers for years, but I don't really want to be in the hardware business," Johnson says. "We're not trying to be that at all. So luckily, in the past three months, there's been two or three groups that have stepped forward that are now going to offer those packages to universities and just bundle our software with it."

Allison has also found the value in being able to farm out the non-software-related pieces of the puzzle. "We actually have partners that we work with if a school is looking to build a facility," he says, "and we can make that reference and help them figure out what they need from both a space and equipment perspective so that they can accomplish the goals that they're setting for their campus."
 

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Facilities
Organized gaming at the collegiate level is still in its infancy, with many intramurals coordinators and rec directors still making their case for esports on campus. For those who have approval and the right software in place, the next step is usually finding a place where teams can practice and compete. This might involve carving out space in an existing structure or building a whole new facility, depending on the school's commitment to the program.

Eugene Frier is the director of esports and gaming at Texas Wesleyan University. The school's intramural esports program is still finding its sea legs and has had to elbow out practice and competition space, which currently includes two separate rooms on campus — one a converted conference room and the other Frier's old office. "One of the rooms is seven computers and a large flat-screen television for video review. The other room is six computers and no flat screen, and a dry erase board for planning." 

Those are meager accommodations but no less precious. "I know some schools have an arena, but we don't even call it an arena," he says. "We don't have our spaces open to general student use. This is our basketball stadium, this is our football stadium, this is our space. It's very important to me that this is a perk for our players."

If a school is looking to do more than repurpose existing space, Allison says the sky's the limit. "The way that I view this is like a ladder, and you have multiple rungs on that ladder. Your bottom rung is using a platform like ours to allow students to use their own equipment and their own space, but engage in competition and community," he says. "The second rung would be running online competition and then letting students bring their own equipment into a space for a live finals, or a live semifinals and finals, just like you would any other student activity, and all you have to provide is space, electrical and networking in order to do that. The next rung up from there would be creating a space that has electrical and network available for students to come to and use on their club night or really whenever they want to gather. The most expensive rung is the one most people look at first right now, which involves building a space, placing your own consoles, placing your own computers."

Allison estimates $1,500 to $2,000 per PC station for a high-end gaming computer, chair, monitors and peripherals. "HVAC is something people often forget about," he adds, "because you put a lot of computers into that space that are creating a lot of heat and you can overwhelm an HVAC system."

Regardless of the size of the facility, the mere presence of a gaming lab on campus has become a recruiting tool just like a luxurious rec center or modern athletics complex.

Mike Wozniak, intramurals coordinator at the University of North Dakota, is currently overseeing the creation of a new dedicated esports facility that he says has been a draw for incoming freshmen. "The feedback from a lot of our tours this summer has been very positive, and I feel like this is going to get a lot of usage, which will lead to more interest in our intramurals," he says. "It definitely helps to have that kind of space, especially if it's not just a room with computers in it. We're planning on getting the racing chairs and the rest of it. We want it to be appealing to gamers especially."
 

Games and licensing
There are a lot of games out there — Overwatch, League of Legends, FIFA, Madden, among many others — and they're published by a number of different companies. Just like Microsoft Office and the Adobe Creative Suite, games are pieces of software and schools are required to purchase a license to offer those games to their students. That can get expensive, which is why a hosting platform is necessary, as the platform provider will already have a licensing agreement in place with the game companies.

Allison explains that each publisher has their own community licensing guidelines. "Some publishers will allow anyone to run a tournament, as long as certain conditions are met," he says. "Others, for instance Blizzard, their community license excludes a school administrator from being able to run a collegiate competition for their student body. So that's where Geex has worked to build relationships with the publishers so that we can help facilitate custom licensing , and a school administrator can run those intramural competitions."

Johnson says that perhaps the hardest thing for schools to figure out is what exactly they want from their esports program.

"Depending on the school, they all have different things they want to do. Some might want to use that space for educational purposes, so they may load a bunch of different programs besides just games," he says. "Others might say, we just want games and they can go to the regular labs if they want to work on their schoolwork. Some of them decide they want to charge for it, like one school we work with charges $4 per hour, and students can use the gaming lab anytime they want."

In some instances, a school may just want to offer gaming for free but then limit playing time. "For example, we have one school that automatically gives each student on Monday five hours of access," says Johnson, "and on Sunday any of the five hours that's not used is deleted. So they don't want a player sitting in there for 50 hours a week, and they want to spread it out amongst their students."

When it comes to games and the actual setup of a gaming facility, Johnson says there's a learning curve. "A lot of people think about this last, but you can't just stick 20 computers on a Windows desktop and expect people to come in and download their own games and make everything work and figure out the licensing and all of that stuff. That's what our software does."
 

The debate around whether esports represent a sport at all is really a moot point. Call them what you will, video games have emerged as an effective tool to help kids get out of their rooms and find a community on campus. That's a good thing for everyone involved.

"People try to shoehorn this into sports, but I just say, 'It's way bigger than that, folks,' " Johnson says, noting that it's time to dispense with the semantics. "I sometimes wish it wasn't called 'esports' because then everybody tries to compare it to sports, and it's not. You don't have to be six feet tall and 290 pounds to be involved in esports. This is going to be way bigger than we all can imagine because it's accessible to all students."


This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Is your campus equipped for the esports invasion?." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.

 

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