During a town hall meeting last year, University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins asked for ideas because so many activities were put on hold because of the pandemic, mainly traditional sports.
Manager for Information Technology Services and now eSports Program Interim Director Walter Ries submitted his suggestion of creating an eSports program.
Although not active in the community himself, Ries has two teenage sons, one of whom casually said, “I wish the university had an eSports program.” The idea sat in the back of his mind until the opportunity came up.
On March 29, the university officials announced they would launch an eSports program, looking to provide a holistic approach to the billion-dollar industry of competitive gaming.
While a college varsity eSports program is new for the university, the nearly decade old eSports club has built a foundation of eSports in the community and ranked highly in competitive gaming tournaments.
The club has built several teams across almost 14 titles or games, with a Rocket League team that won the 2018 College Rocket League Championship Final and was runner up in the following seasons in the Western Conference.
Last fall, every school in the NCAA PAC-12 except UCLA joined to create PAC-U to fill the gap left by “traditional sports.” Unaffiliated with the official Conference of Champions, the PAC-U organized a series of games in October and Ries hopes it will spur on more intercollegiate competition.
While the eSports industry continues to grow, the pandemic spurred on greater interest. President of Arizona eSports Club Liam Koenneker saw a rise in participation for the club. Prior to the pandemic, the club was looking at how to accommodate for their size, which occupies one of the largest rooms at the university and requires the set up of hundreds of computers. The pandemic resolved the issue as the club no longer had to place a cap on club members. The club also began to focus on online community events.
Over the past year, they moved most of their activities to their Discord channel and offered micro-incentives to their members in the form of collectible limited edition roles.
“We were worried about physical in person space, and then COVID hit and it kind of took that cap away, so we really focused on how we engage our members through our events,” said Koenneker. “Creating those micro things, I think actually boomed our events.”
Previously for in-person events, Koenneker said they averaged about 120 to 130 people, but around 140 check-ins for online events. Their social media following also grew from about 1,700 Twitter followers pre-COVID, and recently passed 2,000, and more than 1,800 people in their Discord.
“COVID as a whole, and societally, grew gaming. Gaming was already really large, whether it’s mobile gaming or actual PC gaming, but I think that everyone was like, ‘Well, this is a cool avenue that I can kind of just chill to. I can explore other worlds.’ I think gaming definitely grew during COVID, and I’m excited for the future because that growth is going to continue,” Koenneker said.
With the community and the competitive gaming teams the club has built, it was important for Ries to work hand-in-hand with them to create the eSports Program.
“We have worked very closely with the club as we created this program. We have a really great working relationship with them, and pretty much kind of a synergistic relationship,” said Ries. “Their focus is gonna be a lot more on the community, whereas ours is going to be focused a little bit more on the competitive aspect of eSports.”
Per Koenneker’s recommendations, the eSports Program built on established highly competitive eSports teams in the club, with teams competing in Call of Duty, Smash Bros, League of Legends, Valorant, and Rocket League. Tryouts for the teams will begin in the fall.
Koenneker said Ries had reassured the club that the program would not interfere with the club as “that’s always a concern right, ‘is the university going to take over what we’ve built, and it’s just gonna collapse.’”
He said the club is exploring opportunities to create a dual system in which the club will have two branches, one focusing on the community and the other on the competitive varsity team.
“Currently we have like one big intermingled one, but we want to create two different segments, one that really doubles down and focuses on a casual community experience because, let’s be honest, competitive varsity level players are the top 1% of the pyramid,” said Koenneker.
“So we create a two branch system where people can go to get professional experience and actually add valuable items to their résumé or where people can just chill and meet other people.”
However, this does not exclude the club from competing alongside the university team.
Unlike “analog” sports, eSports does not have one league setting the rules for the game titles. The rules are made by tournament organizers, who may be backed by the game developers themselves, and not every school has a varsity team representing their university, although the number of programs continues to grow.
For example Blizzard Entertainment, which organizes Overwatch tournaments, has a separate league for varsity players, where they only play other varsity teams.
On the other hand, the Rocket League tournament, where the club has stayed within the Top 16, includes club players, players supported by their university and even professional players, said Koenneker.
“I’m pretty sure we have around 50 people that are competitively interested in Rocket League. It’s a lot of people.The top three will go on to play for the university, but everyone else the rest of the 47 people can make their own teams and play at their own discretion in the same leagues that our varsity team is playing in,” said Koenneker. “We don’t want to say no to anyone competing, they’ll just be competing underneath the club if they’re not varsity.”
Since the announcement, many club members have contacted Koenneker about trying out for the varsity team.
Koenneker participated in several committees as the one student representative among faculty and staff working to build the program.
As a committee member, Koenneker hoped to educate others on Collegiate eSports and the industry to build a lasting program.
“A lot of schools tend to see the value in collegiate eSports and universities will always take an opportunity to make some money and I think that some people get a little bit of misinformation and the fact that they can jump into collegiate eSports, make a quick buck and then jump out,” explained Koenneker. “So you see these programs that pop up and they have a couple of varsity players, they offer some scholarships, but they’re not really founded correctly. They don’t have people who fully understand the space behind them, and they collapse really quickly.”
Koenneker wanted them to understand the value of taking a “holistic approach” for the students involved in the program, “so not only just creating an environment where people feel safe, but also creating an environment where people feel like they’re getting value and enhancing their education at the University of Arizona.”
Ries envisions Arizona eSports partnering with academic programs, like the School of Journalism or the Eller College of Management’s sports management program.
“eSports industry is a growing industry. There are new jobs being created all the time,” said Ries. “We want to prepare our students for those new careers in eSports, whether it be journalism, broadcasting, whether it be sports management, whether it’s the players themselves, the coaching, the analyst. All these different aspects are part of eSports.”
In the fall, students will have the opportunity to add an eSports minor, said Catherine Brooks, director and associate professor at the iSchool.
The minor builds on existing programs and courses offered at the iSchool, in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, including a B.A. in Games and Behavior and a B.S. in Game Design and Development, with courses on Gamification in Society and eSport Industries offered in the Summer.
According to Brooks the minor is broad in design, as an addition to a student’s major.
“The future of eSports is much more than just recreational gaming,” said Brooks. “They can be a major in communication or sport journalism or marketing, and get a minor in eSports, which will help them focus on the eSports industry itself. So things like event planning are going to be very important, marketing via games in the esport environment and also, again exploring matters of representation in the games and who plays, like who’s invited to play, who participates, who doesn’t participate.”
Koenneker himself, influenced by his psychology major, introduced the idea of partnering with the School of Psychology, not only for research on the mental health of gamers but also providing mental health services to the Varsity eSports players.
“Video games despite how easy they may seem, at a high level it’s extremely mentally draining, so providing them with resources like that was a really big approach,” said Koenneker.
Partnering with other schools is not seen very often, said Koenneker but “growing the program horizontally throughout the University of Arizona is a really good way to holistically grow it because you’re providing value throughout the entire university, versus just in your program.”
Ries said the program hopes to build on student engagement by offering leadership and development roles, as well as other career opportunities.
“We want students to get real world industry experience while they’re still in college,” Ries said. “What does it take to actually put on a tournament? What does it take to produce the videos, to broadcast them? What’s it like being a shoutcaster? Those sorts of things.”
Other than the director and assistant director, Ries said the majority of the staff within the program will be students, including the coaches and production team.
Ries believes the program will continue to grow and gain sponsors to provide scholarships to their students.
“My goal is to put number one, across the board, whether it’s community, whether it’s how progressive we are, whether it’s the player resources we offer, whether it’s the professional pipelines, whether it’s competitive. I want to be number one across the board,” said Koenneker.