Jan 17 2020

Total Cost of Ownership: The Tech Triad of Successful Esports Programs

Networks, player equipment and a space for spectators round out campus esports initiatives.

In some quarters, esports has gone from game to big business.

As NPR notes, the competitive gaming industry posted its first billion-dollar year in 2019. There’s no sign of slowing as player skills ramp up, winnings get bigger and word of mouth helps digital matchups shift from media outliers to mainstream opportunities.

This creates a natural fit for institutions already familiar with the process of recruiting and training high-profile players, building out top-tier teams and generating sponsorships.

The head coach of Boise State’s esports program, Chris Haskell, puts it simply: “The only difference in esports is really just the ‘e.’”But just like with traditional varsity teams, success isn’t a given; even the best athletes can’t deliver wins without the right program infrastructure. And while this starts by equipping top players with best-in-class PCs and CPUs, strong programs require a technology triple threat to streamline competitive connections, keep gamers geared up and foster fan support.

How to Manage Bandwidth for Optimal Esports Performance

At some institutions, bandwidth may be the biggest hurdle for esports teams. If there’s not enough throughput on campus connections, how will clubs dominate League of Legends or Overwatch matchups against stiff competition?

For Kathy Chiang, assistant director of the esports program at the University of California, Irvine, however, digital traffic isn’t the challenge. The university’s 1-gigabit connection has no trouble handling the load generated by gaming events.

It’s latency, according to Chiang, that’s the bigger issue for gamers.

As noted by the British Esports Association, ideal latency is around 10 milliseconds. Latency between 40 ms and 60 ms remains reasonable, but once connections reach a latency of 100 ms or more, players will encounter a noticeable delay.

To mitigate potential latency problems that could affect performance, Chiang and her team worked closely with UCI’s IT staff.

For example, the university’s esports arena uses its own network connection that sits outside university firewall controls, since some of these protection protocols can interfere with game connections. In addition, PCs in the esports center run in administrator mode because “some games and launchers won’t work correctly if they’re not on an admin account,” says Chiang.

The UCI esports team also made the shift away from individual device management. Now, two servers are used to mirror all device updates and necessary patches.

Processors, Peripherals and Other Tech Give Esports Teams a Boost

Low latency and clear connections lay the groundwork for esports success, but teams also need the competitive edge provided by best-of-breed equipment.

In the UCI Esports Arena, that means running Intel Core i7-9700k processors with ASUS Prime Z390-P motherboards and ASUS GeForce RTX 2070 8-gigabyte graphics cards. It also means fully updating these machines every two years and replacing peripherals (such as mice, keyboards and headsets) annually.

This need for persistent peripheral and primary PC upgrades speaks to the growing role of sponsorship in college esports. In UCI’s case, support from brands like Logitech and iBUYPOWER helped offset the cost of new equipment.

The university also supports its esports initiative by letting public users buy time on gaming-class PCs, says Chiang. Of the 72 devices in the UCI arena, 60 are available for rent on a per-hour basis, allowing UCI to offset one-third of its esports program costs.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Read how Windows 7's end of life is affecting colleges and universities.

Connect with Esports Fans and In-Person Spectators

Esports teams, just like traditional athletics programs, won’t see long-term success without spectator support.

Digital fans form the bulk of esports enthusiasts. At UCI, official events draw viewership numbers in the tens of thousands, says Chiang, in part because of the university’s full broadcast studio and production team, along with front-page mentions of top-tier events on the streaming platform Twitch.

But there’s also a growing need for dedicated physical spaces that meet both player and patron requirements. For example, a new esports arena slated for a 2021 opening in Philadelphia will include optimized sight lines between seats and big-screen TVs. Since there’s no field or court to watch, crystal-clear live feeds of competitor screens are critical. Players will also use soundproof booths to prevent unintended audience interaction in case fans start yelling out advice that could potentially compromise fair competition.

At UCI, Chiang’s team spent $250,000 converting an old campus billiard hall into a small esports arena. This required all-new cabling, switches and routers along with chairs and big-screen TVs for viewing. At Boise State University, the esports arena features professional lighting and sound capabilities, a two-tiered stage and a large viewing area with comfortable seating for spectators.

Esports has established itself as a profitable powerhouse both on campus and off, creating a new avenue for colleges to recruit new talent and raise their public profiles. This market is also maturing into adolescence. As noted by University Business, institutions like Caldwell University now offer esports management programs that focus on building the careers necessary to support this industry at scale, from marketing teams to coaches, finance managers and broadcasting teams.

The takeaway for universities and colleges looking to develop their esports programs and capture competitive interest? PCs and players aren’t enough: Digital sporting success depends on the combined infrastructure support of network, peripheral and physical technologies.

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