David Kirk Jr., the assistant director of esports at the University of Akron (UA), has valuable insight on esports. He shares about misrepresentations, what many people may not know, how to serve this population and more below.
I’m sure I’m forgetting some, but these are common critiques we address to almost every parent we interact with.
DK: For esports specifically, it’s to not treat it like a traditional sport. It never has been nor ever will be the same. Additionally, gamers are used to being ostracized, especially in pop culture due to the negative portrayal of “gamers.”
For collegiate esports specifically, it’s important to provide various levels of engagement for your gamer populations on campus. You should have a varsity component to engage the highly competitive, and a club component to engage those who may not have the highest skill, but still love competing/connecting with others around a certain genre/game title. Then you should have a free play/recreational component to serve as an entry point for those who know little about esports but are interested, or for those who are too skittish to join a club right away and want to still be around others with similar interests. Using this approach, you create a natural funnel to be able to grow different aspects of your program.
If you don’t have facilities on campus already, build them. I promise more gamers than you knew existed on your campus will come out of the dark. Seeing “buy in” from a university is the first step to engaging a gamer.
What have we learned to be key? Make sure you, or someone in a leadership position, are available to provide guidance regardless if it’s during your standard business day. Most gamers are on a late evening schedule, and you may get a message at 10 p.m. While it’s impossible to always be available, trying to provide some sort of answer, even if it’s “I’ll let you know tomorrow.” This goes a long way to show gamers you value them. Keeping them engaged is the key, as well as you letting them know you heard them.
DK: You really need a dedicated person. Just like you can’t expect one person to know all the trends in facilities, intramurals, aquatics, sport clubs, events, fitness, etc., you can’t expect one person to be able to do any other job and stay informed on esports. Games normally have major updates once a week that can drastically change how the game is played. Additionally, due to how new esports in general is, the collegiate landscape is constantly changing and new associations, leagues, rules, etc. always come up. Without a dedicated person, you’ll never be able to have someone that can truly create a comprehensive, engaging program that can aid in student recruitment and retention.
DK: When most folks think of “esports” you think of kids playing against one another to win a game. Sure, that’s part of it, but just like traditional varsity sports. You may have a handful who are really good and want to compete at the highest level, but you have an exponentially larger audience who just like playing video games as a stress release.
To put this into perspective, our facilities here at UA opened in October 2018. From October 2018 to May 2019, we had roughly 1,500 students come into our facilities to play/game. Fifty-five (or 2%) of those students were varsity players. Seven hundred of those students were in an esports club of some sort. The rest were just all students who came into the facility a few times a week to game in between classes. If you take the approach most other institutions are, you’re missing out on engaging the other 98% of your gaming population on campus.
DK: Taking away the barrier to participate is the most important. Many students watch online media like Twitch or Mixer or YouTube rather than playing the game because they either don’t have the equipment to do so at a competitive level or don’t have a community to connect with around that game.
The old saying, “If you build it, they will come” is definitely true in collegiate esports. It should be viewed as a student service, and not a way to make more money. Sure, there are ways you can monetize it, but allowing student to utilize the equipment for free should be a priority. Add it into the student fees if needed, but the quickest way to turn off a gamer is by making them pay for something that is so easily available – granted at lower quality – online.
DK: When starting a program, be wary. There are an unlimited amount of associations, organizations and “experts” who will come out of the woodwork to try and tell you how you should build your program. None of them truly know what they’re doing as this is something only a few professionals have actually done.
What we’ve found to be successful here at UA is to have someone with the traditional higher education/facilities background. Have someone familiar with professional/collegiate esports and the general non-collegiate esports population. By combining them, you’re able to check all the boxes and ensure your program is not only catering to a “gamer” but also catering to the fragile student population. There is a free resource of higher education esports professionals, student club leaders and students available at nationalcollegiateesports.org . There’s no reason to pay someone who doesn’t actually know what they’re doing when you have a community of people actually doing it successfully, readily available and for free.
Disclaimer: Myself and the other Ohio higher ed esports professionals, directors, coaches and student leaders started this free member network just a few months ago. The goal is to do exactly what I state above, have a centralized hub of research, knowledge and professionals who are purely interested in the advancement of collegiate esports. We’re not trying to make a quick buck because esports is the current hot topic and nobody knows anything about it.