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Utah State University brings academics and esports together

A person with a glowing headset plays a brightly colored video game in a dim room

College sports draw in millions of viewers and millions of dollars annually across the nation. While sporting events often bring to mind visions of basketball matches, football tailgates, and homecoming celebrations, another kind of sport is taking hold.

Esports, short for “electronic sports”, are virtual competitions conducted through video or computer games. Unlike traditional athletes, esports players compete from the comfort of a chair, but the premise remains the same: beat the opposing team through superior firepower, wits, or reaction time.

Esports are gaining popularity as a spectator sport, and college sports programs are taking notice. USU is taking this opportunity to combine esports and academics through an expanding undergraduate curriculum and growing competitive esports club.

Ramy Shabaan is an assistant professor of Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences at USU. Originally aiming for a career as a medical doctor, he found a passion in game design, and is now the coordinator of USU’s bachelor degree program called Human Experience, Design and Interaction.

“We have two classes in esports. The first one is casual esports, where students can come and play games, but they study how they feel inside the game…and also we teach another esports class called Developmental esports, where we try to develop students’ skills in certain types of games,” Shabaan explained.

Andrew Walker, the department head of Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences at USU, said esports has put the university in a unique position to blur the lines between recreation and academics.

“Esports is certainly a growing space, especially in academia, where we're still trying to work through what this looks like…. I really love our structure here at Utah State University, it's a collaborative venture between campus recreation as a club sport, and also with our academic unit. And we both have interesting roles to play,” Walker said.

Not all virtual games count as esports. Games that lend themselves well are highly competitive and offer the chance to climb ranking ladders, including games like Call of Duty, League of Legends and Overwatch to name a few. Shabaan explains USU already has a number of teams that play games like these competitively.

“So, we have official USU teams in League of Legends, we have Fortnight, we have CS:GO. These are the main three games, but we have other games, also that students play casually, but we have official teams and they compete on a national basis,“ Shabaan said.

Funding esports at the college level is tough, especially considering high-quality gaming computers and equipment to stream matches online is expensive. Walker said strategy and support from key people has helped other universities achieve successful programs. Boise State University was an early adopter of esports.

“Boise State University who is, you know, in a lot of ways leading this university-level esports effort, being really strategic,” Walker said. “So while they were getting things off the ground, they said, well, we don't want to be a really well kept secret. So, one of the best things you can do is get buy-in from university presidents.“

USU’s esports program has gotten enthusiastic support, including funding and gaming machines, from USU President Noelle Cockett and James Morales, USU’s Vice President for Student Affairs, which has helped kickstart USU’s venture into competitive gaming.

While USU’s program is still relatively new, Shabaan ultimately hopes to follow in the steps of other universities.

“We see a lot of successful examples from other universities…they start actually providing scholarships for students who are engaged into esports. So we want to take that roadmap,“ Shabaan explained.

Angel Espino, or as he goes online, Slimsy, is the president of USU’s esports club. He’s also an undergraduate majoring in Shabaan’s bachelor degree program. He’s been working with USU’s esports faculty to improve the gaming experience.

Espino said that esports is unique in that it’s far more accessible than most other sports, and can foster a diverse community of players.

“The barrier to entry to video games is already pretty small. Even though you know, not everyone can. Not everyone can afford to have a computer that can run every game ever, right. But it's probably one of the most accessible things, because you can kind of do it at any time,” Espino said.

However, Espino noted that while esports are vastly different on many levels from traditional sports, similarities between the two are growing.

“Professional esports organizations, they are like, mandating most of their players to like, have personal trainers, house chefs and stuff like that,” Espino said. “It's so weird, because it's like, not what you would imagine for a bunch of professional players for video games, right?”

Jobs generally associated with traditional sports are growing in the esports sphere as well, and there are more opportunities than simply competing as a player.

“Management, data analysts, production managers, stage production, lighting. It's like everything that exists in any other field exists in this field too. It's just more tailored towards video games. And I wish more people understood that,” Espino said.

With USU’s esports club and tournaments gaining popularity, Walker hopes they can begin providing better facilities to support students and attract additional players to the university team.

“Most of the big programs have a dedicated arena space, and we're currently pursuing something that would be a combination of practice space, competition space, and also support some of our curriculum needs,“ Walker said.

Keep an eye on USU’s esports page for upcoming events and competitions.

Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.