The word “gaming” has many connotations. In the 80s, it mostly referred to text-based role-playing games (or RPGs) called MUDs, or multi-user dungeons. Before there were computer graphics, 3-D rendering, triple A video game companies, or the 1.5 billion dollar industry known as esports, MUDs connected people with the first Macintosh computers in play, through a device that was meant to be used for work.
Dr. Christa Currie of the Department of Behavioral and Natural Sciences at Mount St. Joseph University took part in these online interactive stories, which would be the precursor to the massively profitable, corporatized cultural phenomenon we know today as video games.
“My nephews dragged me into Fortnite,” she says of her video game experience in 2018. Today, Fortnite is one of the most popular video game franchises in the United States, and the leader in the Battle Royale genre. It is also one of the first games that Mount St. Joseph University will incorporate into its recently-launched esports program, along with League of Legends, the most popular game in the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (or MOBA) genre. The Mount will be joining the ranks of over 80 schools nationwide under the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NAC Esports or NACE).
Esports is a fledgling phenomenon among colleges and universities, but the concept has started to move out of the niche realm and into the mainstream. Most esports matches are broadcast via the Amazon-owned livestreaming website Twitch. However, recently ESPN and ABC have agreed to broadcast the playoffs for the Overwatch League, an esport based on the groundbreaking Blizzard First-Person Shooter (or FPS) game. Additionally, the Overwatch League Grand Finals, held at the Barclays Center in New York City, sold more than 20,000 tickets in two weeks.
This explosion in popularity – and in lucrativeness – happened almost entirely under the national radar. It still holds true, though, that money talks. The esports industry is expected to reach $1.5 billion dollars by the end of 2018. In the professional scene, for example, League of Legends has made sponsorship deals with brands like Intel and ASUS, and most recently adopted MasterCard as their first global sponsor. Stars like Shaquille O'Neal and Drake have purchased and invested in esports teams, and as of recent years, forward-thinking colleges and universities have taken notice of this growing phenomenon.
Among the perennial concerns of universities, student retention ranks as one of the highest. Colleges are always looking for opportunities to increase student retention and involvement, often by staying on top of trends and ideas that may prove beneficial to students. The Mount is one such example of a university with a forward-thinking mindset. Currie expressed surprise at the openness and administrative support that has been put forward for this venture by both President H. James Williams, Ph.D., and the board of trustees.
The Mount has joined NACE, or the National Association of Collegiate Esports, and Currie has found that the resources other schools in NACE provide are helpful in building a successful program.
“Everyone is open to helping other schools,” she says. NACE is also the organization which organizes esports tournaments, and scholarship money is available for the winners. The prize pool for the NACE Paladins (another online FPS) championship, which began last month, sits at $50,000.
Approaches to building these programs differ widely as well. The debate about whether or not video games actually constitute a sport rages on. Complicating the issue, collegiate esports programs often fall somewhere in between the jurisdiction of student life and athletics. Esports players are often referred to as athletes, and proponents of the term have made a compelling argument for the physicality of some video games, citing the need for lightning reflexes and intense concentration. Programs that fall into this camp sometimes even require physical training and fitness in order to participate. Many schools embrace the viewpoint that esports belong in student life. The students involved are, of course, still considered a competitive team, but some believe their identity is closer to that of a quiz bowl or debate team than a traditional sports team.
Mount St. Joseph University falls somewhere in between. According to Currie, it is likely that esports at the Mount will be considered part of student life. However, students who participate in esports at the Mount would still be subject to the same academic standards and beholden to the same monitoring systems as other athletes. The reason that esports would be considered student life and not strictly athletics comes down to financial benefits for the students. As a Division III school, the Mount is not allowed to offer athletic scholarships, but can, however, offer scholarships for participation in student life programs. Those who participate in esports would potentially be able to earn scholarship money towards their tuition to Mount St. Joseph University, in addition to any tournament prize money they might win.
At the Mount in particular, the goal is to give students more than just another competitive outlet for those with a passion for video games. Video games occupy a unique space in the menagerie of modern art forms. By taking them to the highest level of excellence, whether in strategy, virtual marksmanship, or any other competitive capacity, the Mount is moving into the future with its eyes wide open.