Universities Across W.Va. Taking An Interest In Esports, Offering Athletic And Academic Programs
Across the state, college campuses are taking an interest in competitive video gaming. Better known as esports, these competitions require strategic thinking, excellent hand-eye coordination, and team cooperation.
Professional level competitions have steadily grown alongside video games, but didn’t find serious financial backing until the past decade. Video game publishers, corporations, Silicon Valley giants, sponsors, and international leagues started investing in the industry as it grew in popularity. In the Internet age, esports have become a huge spectator draw with millions of viewers, and many colleges are building their own programs and varsity teams.
One such program is gaining relevance at Concord University, led by esports director Austin Clay. Concord’s esports program has grown to include multiple teams that specialize in different genres of games, from fighters that focus on individual competition like Super Smash Bros. to cooperative team shooters like Apex Legends and Call of Duty.
“My big thing a lot of people don't realize -- when people say esport, they think it’s just one game. It’s esports with an S,” Clay said.
In 2014, esports broke through to college campuses when Robert Morris University in Illinois formed the first varsity esports program and provided scholarships. Today there are almost 200 varsity esports programs around the nation.
In fall of 2019, Concord University became the first public institution in West Virginia to have a varsity and junior varsity esports program, as well as a new interdisciplinary esports management major. The major itself includes several study areas from within the esports field, from multimedia production to graphic design.
As the esports director at Concord, Clay teaches esports management classes at the school. He is responsible for sponsorships, recruiting, and facility upgrades, among other duties that are traditionally handled by a school’s athletic director.
“As collegiate esports evolve from being on a club-level to a varsity-level, you’re gonna see a rise in professionalism,” Clay said. “You’re just gonna see better, more organized, well-ran teams, which means competition is gonna be higher.”
Clay says his esports players usually earn an extra $2,000 to $4,000 in scholarship money on top of their existing academic scholarships.
“The big thing for us is getting West Virginia on the map,” Clay said. “It’s nice to know that even a small college with only 2,000 kids attending can get nationally recognized.”
Marshall and WVU are taking a cue from Concord and getting in on the esports boom. Many gamers from around the state are enthusiastic about this, including Artem Gavrilev, former esports captain at WVU.
“I am pretty excited to see schools open up esports majors or even scholarships sometimes,” he said. “Fifteen years from now, every school is gonna have an esports wing… I think that’s the future.”
Last Thursday, WVU announced an esports minor alongside a full-fledged esports team.
Marshall University is also developing its own esports program. The Marshall Esports Club Association is a growing student organization with around 410 members.
Caleb Patrick, executive director of the Marshall Esports Club Association, says that WVU’s announcement of its esport minor is a promising sign for the future of esports in the state.
“This has fanned the flames of our motivation, and inspired us to push even harder towards creating a program that’s unrivaled in terms of community, production efforts and quality, and pure competitive prowess,” he said.
Kevin Bryant, the competitive affairs manager for Marshall esports, said that esports is an equalizing competition for different size universities.
“It doesn’t matter what size school you are, it doesn’t matter your resources or capabilities,” Bryant said. “It really is a wild wild west of who can put in that more effort and who can want it more.”
Bryant sees esports as an opportunity for West Virginia to develop competitive in-state rivalries that have been absent in traditional college sports. “It’s been a long time since West Virginia has been given its proper rivalry. That’s left WVU to go on to make sure that their top 25 was secured in football every year,” Bryant said, “They didn’t want to jeopardize it with some podunk rivalry with Marshall University.”
To Bryant, the most important part of bringing esports to West Virginia campuses is to give West Virginian students the opportunity to enter the industry.
“Forcing these students to go out of state to chase opportunities that they love kinda sucks, right? I mean, out-of-state tuition is way more than in-state tuition. It would be really nice if we can give West Virginian students an opportunity to do what they love.”
WVU announced its first big esports recruit last Thursday. Top-ranked player Noah Johnson specializes in the popular football simulation game Madden NFL. Meanwhile, Marshall has recruited three players at the rank of Grand Champion III for the school’s Rocket League team.
The Marshall Esports Club Association, along with the older Marshall Smashers Student Organization, is hosting a statewide tournament of Super Smash Bros Ultimate called “Campus Clash,” on Nov. 13. Next semester, Campus Clash will be hosted by WVU.