Tucked away in the back corner of the Dickinson State University Student Center basement, adjacent the cafeteria, is a room like many others on campus.
Seven desks, each with large computers and monitors, complete with webcams, line the room’s interior walls. Next to each desk sits large, comfortable-looking upholstered leather chairs. To the unknowing eye, the room appears to be nothing more than an upscale computer lab.
However, in the fall, the small room painted in DSU blue, white and gray colors will be the core of what the university hopes becomes its next extracurricular activity, and potentially even its next varsity sport.
The lab is home to DSU’s fledgeling esports program.
Esports is the affectionate name given to competitive video gaming, which draws millions of viewers from across the U.S. and the world every day thanks to online video streaming and networks like ESPN and FoxSports buying into broadcasting tournament finals of major games such as “Overwatch,” and “League of Legends.” Colleges and universities are now getting in on the act, as well. Seeing it as a way to bolster extracurricular offerings and student engagement.
“I think people think esports, or gaming, is people alone in their room not being social,” said Marie Moe, executive director of university relations at DSU, which has an enrollment of around 1,400 students. “But really it requires a lot of strategy, group communication, group dynamics, organizational theory and communication theory.”
Moe was at the forefront of DSU’s initial dive into esports’ potential on campus. After skeptically attending a conference in Georgia, Moe walked away impressed with the potential esports had as an extracurricular draw for prospective students that would also quietly provide them with skills they could eventually use in the working world.
“This is not only something that’s very interesting to our students and to prospective students, but it actually is an opportunity for them to develop these same type of skills that they’re going to need when they leave college,” Moe said. “How do you strategize? How do you plan together? How do you work together toward a goal? These are important soft skills for our students, and they’re in a digital age. They’re going to be working with people who don’t live on the same continent as them. It’s a really interesting avenue for us to be going down. We’re really excited to be doing it.”
Every team needs a coach, however. Even esports teams. In February, DSU graduate and longtime employee Josh Nichols entered the game as the university’s first esports coordinator. The affable, dedicated Nichols was perhaps the most natural fit for the position.
“I was a child and teenage boy once, and then an immature man,” he said. “So I have gamed throughout my life.”
Nichols, DSU’s website communication specialist, never played varsity athletics and admits he’s not a big fan of traditional sports. He now operates much like any other coach trying to build a collegiate sports team. Only his team is playing on a virtual field.
He’s the one making plans for advancing the DSU esports team to the varsity level. He is in charge of recruiting potential student-athletes, and putting together a program that ensures the students who do join DSU’s esports team adhere to the same standards as any other varsity or club athlete.
Like members of its traditional athletic teams, DSU will require esports student-athletes to meet academic standards and eligibility requirements, be engaged in the community, and ensure health and wellness is a priority.
“As far as how the sport will operate, or how we want it to operate, it’s just like any other sport,” Nichols said. “A lot of people think there’s these nerds playing games and they’re all computer science majors. That’s just not the case.”
In early April, Nichols launched the website bluehawkesports.com as both an information and recruiting tool. Within 48 hours, he’d received 12 applications from current and prospective DSU students interested in joining the team.
“We had a huge response already, and that’s just starting,” said prospective DSU esports athlete Paige Langhoff. “I’m excited to see where it goes.”
Langhoff, who’ll be a junior in the fall, is part of the student and faculty workgroup organized to bring esports to life at the university. She learned about the possibility of an esports team after seeing a campus-wide survey and email gauging interest in adding it as a potential extracurricular activity.
An avid gamer, Langhoff said she has heard positive feedback from both current and potential DSU students who have expressed interest in joining an esports team.
“I see this being a huge impact on DSU in a good way,” she said. “… It is a huge thing nowadays. Just having it on campus, even if it doesn’t become a full esports team, even if we just have a gaming club, that’ll draw in a lot of students.”
Moe and Nichols are confident esports will morph into a varsity sport at DSU as early as the 2019-20 school year, though it may start as a club while governing bodies rush to catch up with massive interest being showing by colleges and universities throughout the U.S.
The National Association of Collegiate Esports, or NACE, was founded in 2016 as a nonprofit membership association with the goal of governing “developing the structure and tools needed to advance collegiate esports in the varsity space,” according to its website. Today, more than 130 colleges and universities — including DSU, and its athletic rivals University of Jamestown (N.D.) and Bellevue (Neb.) University — are members of NACE.
“They’re still working out their kinks and bugs,” Nichols said. “Eventually they’ll be a bit more robust. They’ll have their own eligibility center, rules and restrictions. Right now, everyone is just trying to figure everything out.”
This includes, Moe said, determining whether or not collegiate esports student-athletes will be allowed to continue being paid on services like Twitch.TV and YouTube, which will reimburse top gamers for livestreaming their gameplay based on how many viewers they receive. Traditional athletic governing bodies such as the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), of which DSU is a member, do not allow student-athletes to be paid for playing a sport.
In the meantime, DSU is pushing forward with plans for their first esports team.
Nichols said the esports program has to wait until it gets a full roster of players before it chooses which games it’ll focus on. Likely, he said, it’ll be broken down into multiple different games played by different student-athletes. NACE offers competition for many of the top esports games, including “Overwatch,” “League of Legends,” “Fortnite,” and “Rocket League,” and even sports games “Madden NFL,” “NBA 2K,” “MLB: The Show,” and the “FIFA” soccer series.
“We’re currently assessing the skill levels, needs and wants of various players,” Nichols said.
Once organized, the team will determine whether it wants to initially attend competitions at competing universities, host a tournament of its own, or play other universities remotely.
“There’s really no boundaries,” Moe said. “You can play a team anywhere. It’s not based on your enrollment or location. It’s based on your ability level.”
Initially, the players will likely serve as their own coaches, benefitting from each others’ knowledge as well as online programs that offer coaching services to collegiate esports athletes. Nichols said the hope is that, as the esports program grows, DSU will be able to have coaches for specific games and the entire program evolves into its own “mini-athletic department.”
Moe understands there will be some hesitation about esports from those both inside and outside the university, as people begin to understand its place as an extracurricular activity.
She recalled sitting at an airport on her way back from the initial eSports conference she attended. There, she ran into former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, and told her about the potential for esports at DSU. As Moe visited with the senator, she said Heitkamp told her the idea could be a “hard sell.” Moe said she told Heitkamp she knows that very well, because “I was one of those people.”
However, with buy-in from the DSU administration and, more importantly, its students, esports could indeed have a bright future at the university.
“This is an emerging field and we’re excited to be a part of it,” Moe said. “I think it absolutely will draw students to DSU.”