If you think the esports competitions sweeping college campuses these days are nothing more than a passing fad, consider this: More than 100 cities bid for the opportunity to host the 2019 National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) National Convention.
Harrisburg University of Science and Technology ultimately was chosen as the site of the second annual event, which will be held July 17-19. While NACE represents more than 130 member schools that offer varsity esports programs and range in size from junior colleges to major four-year universities, local campus oversight of all esports programming often falls to recreation departments — and for good reason.
of colleges and universities responding to a NIRSA/NACA survey indicated they offer esports programming
of institutions with esports programming said it has increased student engagement and socialization
of institutions with esports programming have staff members dedicated to esports oversight
of colleges and universities don't offer competitive esports but are likely to consider it
"We're not just about fitness or traditional sports," says Laurie Klein, director of recreational sports at the University of North Texas and chair of the esports joint task force launched last fall by NIRSA and the National Association of Campus Activities (NACA). "We are about recreational activities, and that means we should serve students who aren't otherwise using our programs or facilities. Not everybody wants to come to the rec center to work out or play basketball. If you can get students engaged on campus, they're more likely to be successful students."
"Human beings want to be social," adds Wade Kolmel, director of athletics and recreation for the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, which began offering an esports intramurals program in 2017 at a nightclub-like space on campus. "Esports are creating their own energy and attracting like-minded people, bringing them out of the isolation of their dorm rooms."
Indeed, reaching a broader swath of students is one of the goals of the NIRSA/NACA task force. "Students are organizing through various student organizations, and administrators are organizing through intramural and club sport models," NIRSA president Ken Morton, who also is director of campus recreation at Stephen F. Austin University, said when introducing the task force last October. "Senior level administrators, especially at smaller campuses, are leveraging esports as a recruiting tool."
The nine-member task force surveyed college and university administrators about their esports offerings. The group is expected to make recommendations about potential opportunities and challenges that esports represent in the pursuit of providing all students with a holistic educational experience — especially regarding club sports and intramurals.
"We know esports is happening all over the place, but it's still the wild, wild west," Klein says. "I can't tell you there is a common way campuses are approaching esports."
'I didn't know anything about gaming'
In 2018, UNT was among the first colleges and universities in Texas to launch a varsity esports program, with four teams competing in Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, League of Legends and Overwatch — some of the most popular games in competitive esports.
By that point, North Texas already was hosting intramural competitions with such games as Call of Duty, EA Sports FIFA and NBA2K, as well as providing club sports opportunities. In fact, some of UNT's first varsity esports squads were pulled from those club teams. About a year ago, UNT's recreational sports department also hired its first esports coordinator to help advance the university's varsity programs.
North Texas hosts tournaments both online and live at a repurposed space in one of the libraries on campus. That space has been dubbed The Nest, and administrators decked it out with $250,000 worth of gaming equipment — including computers, consoles, monitors, chairs and adjustable desks — all paid for by the recreational sports and student affairs departments. While varsity teams receive first dibs, The Nest is home to all of the university's esports programs.
Word spread about UNT's commitment to esports, and more than 130 high school students have contacted the recreation department's staff in recent months to find out more about the university's varsity esports program.
Adding esports to UNT's recreational sports palette came as a mandate from university president Neal Smatresk, who took over that role in 2014 and envisions UNT as a pioneer in this arena.
"I didn't know anything about gaming," admits Klein, a 26-year veteran of UNT's recreational sports department and the mother of two teenage boys who play video games. "I can't even tell you I used to play Pac-Man, because I didn't. I spent a week or so looking into the esports culture and its opportunities, and then I thought, 'Who on my staff can help me with this?' Because my role is not to understand how the games work; my role is to figure out our program and how we're going to run it."
While esports can fall under the jurisdiction of student life on some campuses and under athletics on others, some colleges and universities are ceding that responsibility to academic departments. At Boise State University, for example, varsity esports is overseen by the Department of Educational Technology, and the esports program at Utah State University relies heavily on support from the Department of Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences.
At Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, where recreation officials oversee esports, programs are developed based on demand.
"We noticed at some of our open houses and expos that students were asking more questions about gaming opportunities on campus," Kolmel says. "SAIT embraces innovation and entrepreneurship, and our students are helping us become more innovative."
SAIT also developed "Get Up and Game," a four-day summer camp for local Calgary kids in grades three through six that combines mental and physical activities by encouraging participants to compete together in online gaming, as well as use those social skills in real-world recreational activities.
Says Amanda Gill, SAIT's marketing and recreation program coordinator, "We've learned esports are just as in demand as traditional sports."
'It is a bit risky'
Given the surge in esports programming on campuses nationwide, it's no surprise that the two sessions dedicated to esports at February's NIRSA Annual Conference and Campus Rec & Wellness Expo in Boston — including a panel that featured Gill and recreation professionals from other colleges and universities — boasted large crowds.
"It is a bit risky," Kolmel says about taking on an unknown entity as a new programming challenge. "But all we had to do was be quiet and pay attention to what was going on around us. Then we invested in the right people who put the time and energy into a new and innovative opportunity."
"Does esports programming have staying power? I think so," Klein concludes. "This is the world our kids are growing up in, and I feel good about what we're doing and the students we're serving."
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Rec departments take on new challenges with esports programming." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.