Gone are the days when being a college athlete meant spending hours at the gym.
At Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind., a new type of athlete is coming to campus donning headphones and a mic: the esports athlete from the organized and competitive world of online gaming.
That’s right: Playing video games online is now a college sport.
Esports is the rapidly expanding global online gaming sport where teams, or leagues, virtually compete in popular games, like League of Legends, Overwatch, Fortnite, and Call Of Duty—just to name a few.
Andrew Palladino, a staff member at Grace, was hired to head the esports team.
These competitions draw audiences of more than 380 million worldwide viewers who anxiously tune in to root for their favorite gamers. The sport has become so popular that gamers can now earn money for playing esports through paid video streams and playing on esports teams, which travel and compete in global tournaments—much like traditional athletic teams.
One popular esports gamer, Tyler Blevins, or “Ninja” as his millions of fans know him, is on the streaming platform Mixr where, at his peak, he reportedly made around $500,000 per month online for playing the game Fortnite.
But while esports can be a tempting avenue for gamers to earn serious money doing what they love, it is also very competitive to break into. Thus, more players are looking to build their skills and compete at the amateur or pre-professional levels.
Enter: Varsity esports. Esports found its way onto college campuses with more and more universities adding it to their athletic departments alongside traditional sports like football, basketball, and tennis.
Across the country, nearly 400 esports programs were reported at colleges and universities in Oct. 2019, including at least four others in Indiana at Indiana Institute of Technology in Fort Wayne, Manchester University in Manchester, Trine University in Angola, and Valparaiso University in Valparaiso.
Reporting on the trend in Ohio, which has one of the largest levels of collegiate esports participation nationwide, Cinncinnati.com says many universities see esports as a win-win for students and schools.
Students want to play, and many of them happen to be STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) students who could someday land careers that make them high-dollar university donors—not to mention beef up the state’s STEM education and tech sectors.
When it comes to bringing esports to Grace College in northeast Indiana in the fall of 2020, Athletic Director Chad Briscoe says STEM education was not a consideration, but might be a bonus. Briscoe
“We looked at the growth of the sport and also adding new opportunities for our current students and potential new students,” Briscoe says. “If STEM education is enhanced or grows from the growth of esports, that would be a plus for our campus and community, too.”
More than anything, Grace simply “didn’t want to be late to the game,” Briscoe says.
“We’re excited to see what it looks like once it comes to fruition,” he adds.
The students participating in esports at Grace College will be considered student-athletes, put on scholarship, and be held to the same standards as any other Grace College athlete, Briscoe says.
Practices will be organized around student schedules, which will most likely include afternoon and evening times.
Roster sizes for an esports team range anywhere from 10 to 15 players, but only five compete during an online game at a time.
Because esports games are played online, there is not much travel required either. Two competing teams set a time to compete; then both sides are online and ready for the game to begin.
League of Legends is currently the most popular esports game worldwide. It’s a fast-paced, competitive game that blends speed and strategy. Two teams face-off, both with different strategies and characters, and battle head-to-head across various battlefields and game modes.
Grace will start its esports team with this game, and add others after they get started, based on what students want to play, Briscoe explains.
As part of its new team this fall, Grace will be joining the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) along with several other schools participating in NACE’s Crossroads League.
NACE will help organize their future schedule, as well as regional and national tournaments.
While Grace has been eyeing esports as a potential collegiate sport for some time, Briscoe says there were two main factors for Grace College making it a reality: Finding a coach and a facility for gaming.
While he would have liked to launch the esports program in the fall of 2019, the school was unable to find a coach in time. After much consideration, Andrew Palladino, a staff member at Grace, was hired to head the team.
Palladino, a 2016 graduate of Cornerstone University, holds a degree in film/video and has worked in Grace’s marketing department for the past two years.
Finding a facility to house the esports program has proved less challenging, Briscoe says.
A company called Super Geek Gaming in Warsaw already has an esports lounge outfitted with computers ready for battle.
Having Grace students compete there could strengthen the school’s connections in its surrounding community.
Along with strengthening bonds and building up the state’s STEM recruitment, another big driver for the college to launch an esports program at Grace is the desire to attract new intrigue to the school, as well.
“Anytime you implement a new program, you’re hopeful that it creates excitement for the continued growth of Grace College,” Briscoe says.
And with esports, growth is the easy part. It’s a massive industry worldwide that shows no signs of slowing down.
So while this may be the first time you’re hearing about it, it certainly won’t be the last.
Prospective esports students can visit Grace College’s athletic website at gclancers.com, which provides contact information for Head Coach Palladino, as well as information highlighting the program and how to join.