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The Augusta Chronicle (Georgia)
The Peach Belt Conference is going a different direction for its latest expansion.
The newest sports offering by the Columbia County-based NCAA Division II conference is one you won't find in a basketball arena or a soccer field. Instead, it's a game that's played on the computer.
The Peach Belt has added Esports to its lineup of athletic offerings. The 12 conference schools, including Augusta University and USC Aiken, will feature five-player teams (one alternate) that will face off in League of Legends, a popular online game. The schools will play an 11-game schedule in the fall and spring semesters.
At the end of the regular season, the top eight teams will advance to the Peach Belt Esports Championship. The Peach Belt is the first conference in the NCAA or NAIA to sponsor an Esports championship.
"We've got a great opportunity to showcase the Peach Belt," conference commissioner Dave Brunk said, "and really get a totally different subset of a campus community involved with the Peach Belt on its campus."
Brunk said he always challenges his staff to think outside the box. He wanted to know what the Peach Belt could offer that would be new and innovative, something that would make other conferences, institutions and businesses call wanting to know more. After a brainstorming session, the staff came up with Esports.
"I really hadn't heard much about Esports," Brunk said.
After doing some research, he learned how big Esports is in the world. For the 2016 League of Legends World Championship semifinals, Madison Square Garden featured sold-out crowds for two consecutive nights (18,000 fans per night).
Earlier this year, he brought up the Esports idea with the vice chancellors/vice presidents of student affairs around the Peach Belt. The response? Everyone loved it. Later, Brunk presented the Esports proposal to the presidents of all the Peach Belt schools. Again, he received a positive response.
Now, the Peach Belt will start its Esports venture in October. So when Augusta and USC Aiken face each other, they will likely do so on a Friday night in a computer lab. The schools will log in and play each other online.
Brunk said two of the benefits of Esports are no travel and no lost class time.
"It's really a happening," he said. "We've got to walk before we run. We need to make sure everything goes as smooth as possible in Year One. Maybe the second year, we can expand it more."
The Esports teams will be run through each school's student affairs departments and overseen by the Peach Belt. Players have to meet eligibility requirements, like being a full-time student in good academic standing.
Brunk said this now gives an offering for students who pay athletic fees and never go to an athletic event.
"We're excited about it," Brunk said. "The Esports phenomena is going to keep growing and growing. For us to be on the cutting edge is huge."
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