Concordia joins other colleges and universities with addition of varsity esports program
Competition is set to launch this winter, with the Cobbers joining the National Association of Collegiate Esports
MOORHEAD — A new varsity sports program will be coming to Concordia College next winter.
The college announced April 4 the addition of esports as a varsity offering to students, adding to the growing list of colleges and universities across the nation with similar programs in place.
Short for "electronic sports," esports combines popular video games with competition among teams or individuals. The market for esports has boomed in recent years, with an expected global revenue growth to more than $1 billion in 2021, according to Newzoo’s Global Esports and Live Streaming Market Report from last year.
The idea of adding an esports program at Concordia was brought to fruition by senior student Noah Hanson.
Hanson will work full time in the college’s IT department upon graduation. He worked closely with James Jehlik, associate director of Academic and User Technology Services, and Dr. Lisa Sethre-Hofstad, vice president for Student Development and Campus Life, over the last two years to get the program off the ground.
“It was Noah’s proposal maybe 2 1/2 years or so ago that brought this topic to my attention,” Sethre-Hofstad said. “I didn’t know very much about it, but Noah’s proposal got me interested and intrigued, and we’ve been having conversations ever since about launching a program.”
“James is kind of the one who put the earworm in my brain and got me thinking about it,” Hanson said. “We had already had a couple of people around the office who had been interested in video games. It sounds like something (Jehlik) had been thinking about for a while.”
Jehlik said adding an esports program not only lines up well with other program offerings at Concordia, but also aims to erase the stereotype that’s been placed on gaming enthusiasts for years.
“I’ve been a gamer on some level for most of my life,” he said. “And I’m passionate about the people, because gamers have a bad rap about being basement dwellers or people who don’t like to be around other people, and that’s not at all true. In a lot of cases, it’s because they’re pushed that way, and I just have a passion for the (gaming) community. It’s near and dear to my heart, and I know that there’s been a lot of people here throughout the years … I’ve known so many students that have come through and they’re gamers and they’ve never been embraced. If you were a gamer 10 years ago, you wouldn't tell your friends unless they were gamers too. You kind of kept that close.
“But now, it’s OK. Why not? It’s spreading around the country, it’s all over the world and it fits with all of the important things at Concordia. It just made a lot of sense and we thought, ‘Let’s try it.’”
As Jehlik said, the industry has become a global phenomenon. For example, "The International," a tournament for the video game "Dota 2," has been held annually at venues across the world since 2011 and features a prize pool of roughly $40 million.
Professional gaming is profitable, too. Tyler Blevins, better known by the name of "Ninja," was the top-earning professional gamer in 2019, according to Forbes. While he made less than $100,000 in competition, Blevins still made around $17 million through endorsement and sponsorship opportunities that year.
Collegiately, esports is overseen by the National Association of Collegiate Esports. Formed in 2016, the nonprofit association has more than 170 member schools combining for more than 5,000 student-athletes, according to its website. NACE has also provided more than $16 million in scholarships and aid to student-athletes.
Concordia will be affiliated with NACE right from the beginning, ensuring that maintaining education for those in the program is priority No. 1.
“The thing I like about being affiliated with an organization like NACE is that we care about our students as whole people, and we don’t want them competing on an esports team at the expense of their academic experience or academic success,” Sethre-Hofstad said. “NACE and organizations like NACE have standards such as how do you maintain balance? How do you make sure that students are student-athletes and their learning comes first?
“I also think there’s a great opportunity for students who aren’t necessarily competing on the team, but who might be majoring in PR or marketing or computer science, or other majors where their intellectual and academic interests actually align with some of the opportunities that students will have to work or volunteer or participate in the program more broadly. So I do see it as a broader, more experiential opportunity for a lot of students, and anchoring to NACE matters a lot to me because of that student success side.”
Some schools have even gone as far as offering academic programs specific to esports. Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, claims to be the first Division I school in the nation with an esports team, the first to offer an academic program on the video game streaming platform Twitch, and one of the first to offer a master’s degree program in esports management.
Sethre-Hofstad said it’s too early in the process to see if offering any related academic programs is feasible.
“Right now it’s probably too early to make any promises in terms of that,” she said. “But like I said before, I think the opportunities to work within the program align with other majors we already have and certainly it’ll be fun to see where this might go in the future.”
“I would say getting this technology and having the space is meant to be sort of a stepping stone for things that aren’t just esports,” Hanson added. “We wanted to provide an opportunity for people who wanted to get into, like, broadcasting or streaming or tech support or all these other things. To have that technology I think is the first stepping stone to open that up. Who knows where it’s going to go, but we’re already planning to have at least independent learning experiences for students who want to be involved.”
Concordia plans to renovate the lower level of Park Region Hall to house 18 high-end gaming computers. A head coach will also be hired in the near future. Competition is slated to begin in January 2023, with "League of Legends" and "Rocket League" being the first two titles the college will offer.
“The reason we went with those two is because that’s what the area high schools, regional high schools and college teams are playing,” Jehlik said. “It just makes sense to go into the top titles that are out there.”
Jehlik sees potential for more games to be added to the program in the future.
“As far as expanding the catalog, I think that’s certainly something we would consider. But we’ve got our work out in front of us for this right now. After we’re successful with it for a little while, then I think we’d probably consider adding more.”
Like any other sport, a competitive esports team requires a full commitment from practice to game day.
“So the team would practice, and the team is going to be (comprised of) starters, alternates and supporting crew,” Jehlik said. “So there would be practices probably four days a week, let’s say. On Thursday, you’re preparing for games on the weekend. They would go over footage of other teams playing and things like that to review for the game. Games on the weekends would be against other schools, and everybody plays from their own home base. NACE, I believe, orchestrates brackets and divisions and things like that. So we won’t know what our opponents will look like until we’re actually in and signed up, but it will be against other schools on the regular and we’re hoping to create relationships with other schools, maybe even high schools to provide scrimmages and intermingling gaming with other groups.”
Opportunities could even expand beyond weekly competition and beyond the normal academic year.
“James was talking about hosting a ‘Cobber Invitational’ or having summer camps or other opportunities that would align our work with other institutions,” Sethre-Hofstad said. “But I think it remains to be seen. Once we get the personnel in place, we can make some of those decisions. Some of those opportunities will reveal themselves more clearly.”
Overall, the excitement surrounding the program is high. Hanson, Jehlik and Sethre-Hofstad all said they’ve received plenty of interest from the student body since the announcement alone.
“I’m excited,” Hanson said. “It’s been basically four years of my college that we’ve been kind of tossing it around. And right here at the end, it’s been kind of cool to see everything just falling into place. I’m sad I won’t be able to compete, but I’m at least happy that I’ll be able to be around to see how things shape out and be able to help a little bit.”
“It’s been fun to see the response that we get both from off-campus constituents, as well as our internal student community,” Sethre-Hofstad continued. “I think it’s going to be really fun to see what happens and what we’re going to learn and it’ll be great to get this off the ground next January.”