Esports Growth During the Pandemic

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College esports was surging in popularity even before the pandemic, but the intricacies of esports are still new to many leaders in higher education. How can institutions accelerate the adoption of esports?

Joey Gawrysiak, Director of Esports at Shenandoah University, joined the Enrollment Growth University to talk about the “more than games” reality of esports’ growth this year from a cross-disciplinary program standpoint, from a broadcasting standpoint, and from a public safety standpoint.

A High-level Overview of College Esports

At the collegiate level, esports work a lot like traditional college sports. You have varsity teams, club teams, and recreational teams. T the teams get coaches and jerseys. Players compete in leagues. At national championships, participants win trophies, rings, jackets, or just plain glory. In a lot of tournaments, there are also prize pools for a lot of tournaments. Some schools even offer scholarships. That’s not to say that traditional and esports are just alike, but esports have taken off at the collegiate level.

A common misconception is that esports equals gaming. But esports goes beyond that. Yes, it involves playing video games and competing in video game tournaments. Students definitely play games, but there’s a lot more involved. 

Many universities are starting to understand the educational opportunity students can gain through the mechanism that is esports. Besides education, there’s also character development, professional development, and a sense of belonging.

How Esports Can Serve as Safe Replacements for Traditional Sports

Because of COVID, Shenandoah had to cancel its big football game this year. Since other traditional sports couldn’t fill in, the school turned to esports. 

Joey and his team set up a virtual homecoming, playing a game of Madden against Randolph Macon College. Each college put up a player, and the two vied for the championship one on one. 

“We played it from our esports arena,” Joe said. “We brought one of our football announcers into the arena and of our esports people that is very highly ranked in Madden across the country.”

Those two did a play-by-play broadcast just like this was an actual football game. Shenandoah crowned its homecoming royalty at halftime, the school’s leadership made an appearance, and 2,000 people watched online.

Investing in Esports Technology

Even before COVID, Joey had earmarked money for content creation, broadcast production, and event streaming. It wasn’t a lot of money because you don’t need a lot. What you invest is time and sweat equity. 

Joey identified some students that had the passion and skill to help with creating content, producing the broadcast, and creating graphic design and audio. 

“We had students that wanted to get behind the broadcast desk to do the play-by-play and the analysis for it,” Joey said. “They wanted to do the research and put in the effort to do the broadcasting, and to do the interviews of the players.”

Most of the money got invested in the equipment, especially software and hardware for the broadcasts. But after that, success comes down to having the right people in the right positions.

Esports in Academia

Shenandoah offers an MBA concentration in esports. They also have a graduate certificate, an undergrad certificate, an undergraduate BBA concentration, and a coaching certificate. 

The college partners with the Washington Justice Overwatch League team. It’s the first partnership of its kind for any university with any professional esports team. The league not only provides internships to students every semester, but also one of their front-office staff is an adjunct professor in Shenandoah’s MBA program.

He teaches real-world, real-time situations and brings in guest speakers so students can grow their networks. The students absolutely love it. 

“I have a couple students that are notorious for saying, “I didn’t get anything out of that class,” Joey said. “But when it came to these esports classes with people in the industry, they were telling me, “I learned more in one semester than I have in the last three years.” 

How to Launch an Esports Program at a College or University

Joey offered several practical tips on setting up a collegiate esports program:

  1. Get started. It’s okay to start small, even just one competitive team or one class. You must have administrative support, though, or it won’t work. 
  2. Find one person on campus — an administrator, faculty member, community member, or parent  — who can champion esports. No matter what part of esports you’re talking about, whether it’s the academic, competitive, professional development, you’ve got to have that one go-to person. That is a big part of getting started.
  3. Control the burn. eSports can get out of control very quickly. Students will say, “Let’s play this game. Let’s try this. Let’s talk to these people. Let’s build that. Let’s buy this.” You can’t let the fire be an explosion; it’s got to be a controlled burn.
  4. Grow it organically, and do it in a way that makes sense for your university. It’s got to fit into the distinctive mission of your institution. 

And Joey’s biggest piece of advice? Find that champion and get started in a way that makes sense for you and your institution.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Joey Gawrysiak of Shenandoah University. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.