Esports Program Grows

Esports Program Grows

By Blake Ursch

After the COVID-19 pandemic largely shut down in-person spaces, many increasingly turned to an ever-reliable substitute —screens — for work, school and, perhaps least surprising of all, for play.

The pandemic led to a general spike in the profile of esports — competitive multiplayer videogaming — worldwide. The trend played out at college campuses across the country, including at Creighton University, where the pandemic sparked the creation of an intramural student esports initiative.

The University’s standing in the esports community has now grown to the extent that Greg Durham, director of recreation and wellness for Creighton’s Division of Student Life, was chosen to lead efforts to organize a national tournament through the National Intramural and Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA).

“Before COVID, we didn’t have any esports at Creighton,” says Steven Walton, assistant director for competitive sports in the Division of Student Life. “When the pandemic hit, and we didn’t have any other option than to go virtual, that gave us the standing and allowed us to start this program.”

The story was similar at many college campuses, says Tyler Schrodt, CEO and founder of the Electronic Gaming Federation, an independent organization that works to provide infrastructure for high school and collegiate esports programs and is currently the esports partner for the BIG EAST conference.  

“The high-level answer is yes, esports has been a unique way to keep campus communities engaged and together when in-person activities aren’t an option with schools either creating full, formalized programs like those that compete with us, and also creating online intramural or community tournaments,” Schrodt says. “Not every school has embraced esports yet for one reason or another, but I think it’s safe to say that the pandemic accelerated adoption and, for many campuses, served as a bright spot in an otherwise extraordinarily difficult year.”

Creighton’s foray into esports began in the spring of 2020, with a number of student participants competing against each other in several games, including NBA 2K, FIFA, Rocket League and Madden NFL. The market, Walton says, largely determines which popular games get competitive play. Keeping the program in line with Creighton’s Jesuit, Catholic mission, Walton says the team doesn’t play the photorealistic first-person shooters, such as Call of Duty, that also prove popular in competitive play.

Creighton later took the lead in organizing a state esports tournament that included teams from several Nebraska schools — the University of Nebraska, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the University of Nebraska Kearney and Wayne State University. The tournament included more than 90 players, including 33 from Creighton.

And of the seven champions left standing at the end of the tournament, three were Bluejays.

One of these was Tristan Kelly, now a rising senior in the Heider College of Business, who won the state tournament’s Rocket League championship. In the game, players control rocket-powered cars with the aim of knocking a ball into their opponent’s goal like soccer.

Kelly says he’s been playing Rocket League for years. When the opportunity to play in the tournament arose, he jumped at the chance.  

“We’re pretty competitive people, and we were bored because of all the COVID stuff, so we just signed up for the tournament. They would connect you with your opponents, and you would play, and I guess we ended up winning it,” Kelly says.

The game, which can be played on several platforms including PlayStation, Xbox, macOS and the Nintendo Switch, involves a level of communication and strategy that comes with hours of practice, Kelly says. Still, he and his teammates experienced just how competitive the game can be when they later played in a larger 3-on-3 competition hosted by the BIG EAST and MAAC conferences.

“Me and my two friends who are pretty good, we probably put in 20-30 hours practicing before the tournament,” Kelly said. “And we got absolutely destroyed by this Butler (University) team. I think they probably put in, like, 1,000 hours together, the three of them.”

It’s important to point out, Durham says, that Creighton’s esports program is still in its infancy.  In the fall of 2020, about 250 students participated. Students currently decide when and how to practice on their own. The hope, he says, is that the team will grow into a more formalized program with its own meeting space on campus.

In the meantime, Durham has burnished his own esports credentials, leading efforts to organize a national esports tournament as the chair of the NIRSA’s Esports Task Force. The NIRSA Esports Championship Series took place April 8-10 and involved 102 teams from the U.S. and Canada.

Over three days, more than 250 participants from 49 schools competed against each other in Rocket League. Four Creighton students – Nick Schmitz, BSBA’21; Hootie Lawrence, BS’21; Anthony Stacy, BSBA’21; and Alex Moffatt, a current student in the Heider College of Business – made it into the national semifinals, meaning Creighton advanced the furthest among schools without formal esports programs.

“Esports is helping college campuses across the country meet students where they are right now,” Durham says. “It was the honor of my lifetime, and probably one of my proudest career accomplishments to lead this team and direct the first ever NIRSA National Esports Tournament.”

Nicole Jackson, NSC sports and campus activation coordinator with NIRSA, says Durham was selected “based on his expertise in esports, his abilities to lead and his worth ethic in his previous NIRSA and NIRSA Champion Series roles.”

“I think I can speak on behalf of the NIRSA Championship Series, we were lucky to have Greg and the other amazing task force members be part of this first NIRSA esports tournament,” Jackson says.

Because of the success of the first event, the NIRSA has opted to host a second national esports tournament in 2022.

As esports programs continue to grow, recreation and wellness officials at colleges and universities across the country are realizing the real benefits that students stand to gain from being involved, Durham says.

Esports, he says, help students develop team-building and critical thinking skills. There are physical wellness elements to esports as well, he says. Players need to develop dexterity and quick reaction timing to be successful.

Robust esports programs, Durham says, can also serve as powerful recruitment tools for colleges and universities looking to attract a generation of students who have grown up with competitive gaming.  

“What we’ve heard from a lot of participants nationally is that students love playing video games and all they want is more opportunities to play with other students in structured competition,” Durham says. “In this time, when we’re digital and using our computers more than we ever have, this new generation of students is already playing video games. They’re exposed to them much earlier and coming in with a knowledge of esports. What we’re hoping to do is capitalize on that interest.”