When complete, renovations for Ottawa University's new esports arena will support matches as well as theater productions.

Esports Coaches Share Lessons Learned on the Path to Building a New Program

Colleges embracing the popularity of esports share lessons on launching a new program, from the ground up.

Conversations about esports at Ottawa University in Kansas began in earnest in the spring of 2018, when the chancellor expressed interest in starting a program. 

Barely a year later, the university hired Connor Alne as its first esports coach. And this fall, Ottawa students will compete in varsity matches in the campus’s new esports arena.

If that sounds like a rapid timetable, that’s because it is.

“It was a very frantic first couple of months,” Alne says. “So much had to be put in place. We had to figure out what tournaments we were going to play in, how to recruit students and create our brand. All that had to be done from scratch.”

Hennick Secondary

Adam Caylor and Connor Alne fast-tracked a varsity esports program at Ottawa University. Photography by: Ryan Nicholson.

By now, the word is out on esports. More than 175 institutions belong to the National Association of Collegiate Esports, representing more than 4,500 student-athletes who have received $16 million in esports scholarships and aid. 

While esports was a niche campus activity a couple of years ago, it has grown rapidly, driven by student interest and administrators who see it as a potential recruitment tool.

“I get calls from schools weekly saying, ‘Our competitor 20 minutes down the road just added esports, and we’re losing students to that school,’” says Victoria Horsley, NACE marketing manager. “We’ve kind of hit a critical mass.

But grasping the concept is one thing; putting it into action in a matter of months is another. Here’s how three colleges have rapidly built up and scaled their esports programs. 

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how esports can improve STEM equity among higher education students.

Esports Recruits Expect More from Facilities and Equipment

Ottawa University wanted to outfit an early-1900s theater building with audiovisual and gaming equipment to host tournaments, opting for lighting and wireless solutions that could also accommodate theatrical productions. In the meantime, Alne and Adam Caylor (now Ottawa’s director of technical, user and esports operations) scoped out esports equipment.

“I think a lot of universities have someone who says, ‘Let’s just put them in the computer lab,” Caylor says. “We said, ‘No, we need gaming-specific computers.’”

Partnering with CDW, Horizon AVL and eSports Integration, Ottawa ultimately deployed 24 machines with Intel Core i5-9600K processors and NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2060 graphics cards, along with 144-hertz, 24-inch gaming monitors from BenQ and peripherals such as headsets and keyboards. 

Alne says he planned the build around the requirements of Overwatch, the most resource-intensive game in which Ottawa students will compete.

“We were going off the most economic build that would still be able to run the games we selected for probably the next three years,” says Alne.

Skimping on equipment not only hampers performance, he adds, it also turns off recruits: “This field is getting more and more competitive. Kids aren’t going to school because it’s the only one with an esports program anymore. If you visit a school and they’re playing with a computer out of the computer lab, it looks like there’s not a lot of support for the program.”

Chris Haskell, head esports coach and an associate professor of educational technology at Boise State University, started the program there just two years ago. 

He has procured equipment and space for his players in what he jokingly calls a “musical montage” of harried activity. At first, the program lacked gaming computers entirely, so students played from dorm rooms or apartments. Haskell then earmarked a classroom that he outfitted with 13 machines.

Today, Boise State has more than 100 HP Omen 880 gaming desktops with Intel Core i7 processors, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 graphics cards and 144Hz, 25-inch monitors. 

Varsity athletes compete inside a 2,000-square-foot arena, on a stage covered in the same blue turf that has helped make the college’s football team famous. The college also has two more gaming spaces, with plans to add another soon.

“We never got a big budget approval,” Haskell says. “But I would go to the dean and say, ‘We need $4,000 for a switch and cabling.’ It was a whole lot of, ‘Here’s what we need next.’” 

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Rapid Growth Challenges Esports Teams to Scale Up Quickly

Although Ottawa University’s leadership was enthusiastic about esports, Caylor says he was met with a few raised eyebrows when he presented the scope of the technology build-out for the new arena. And, says Alne, esports coaches will inevitably receive skeptical questions from faculty members and others that he describes as “people over 40.” (Alne himself is just 24 years old.)

“You’re going to have to educate them on what esports is, where it’s going, why it’s a good opportunity and why it’s not just kids drinking soda and playing video games and not achieving anything,” Alne says.

Recruiting players, on the other hand, seems to be a breeze for many institutions that launch new programs. At Boise State, Haskell drew a packed house for an initial informational meeting on the strength of a few flyers and word of mouth. 

The university now has 65 varsity athletes and more than 300 club players.

$3 billion

The estimated annual total revenue that will be generated by esports in 2022 (nearly half of which will come from media rights), up from $655 million 2017

Source: Goldman Sachs, “Esports: From Wild West to Mainstream,” October 2018

Park University started an esports program last fall at its flagship Parkville, Missouri, campus. Twenty-two players share 16 gaming computers, with more students clamoring to sign up.

“We figured it would be a slow buildup, but it’s blown up extremely quickly,” says Shilo Acebedo-Moore, a technical support specialist. “One of our biggest challenges is expandability.”

One lesson learned is that the recruitment process may influence the games a college decides to adopt, says Ashley Jones, Park’s head esports coach. 

“We were originally trying to recruit members to play Hearthstone, but we didn’t get any applications for the first couple of months,” she says. “But I was constantly getting inquiries about Rocket League. I made an executive decision to switch.”

A similar thing happened at Ottawa University, which had planned to launch with League of Legends, but will delay competing in that game until next year due to limited interest from current players.

The university had its greatest ­success recruiting via social media, says Caylor.

“I feel like we were much more productive with $1,000 in Facebook marketing than we would have been with $5,000 in traditional marketing materials going to students’ houses,” he says. “You have to meet students where they are.”

Ryan Nicholson
Oct 11 2019

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