Give the attendees of this afternoon meeting at Winthrop University great credit.
Their eyes didn’t roll or glaze over, or even shut altogether when Winthrop athletic director Ken Halpin began talking about esports.
Esports is another name for competitive video gaming.
Right there, that’s where he loses many people from older generations.
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But these folks in the university’s Board of Trustees Committee on Student Life and Athletics meeting kept listening. Halpin proposed getting Winthrop out in front of a burgeoning and already booming esports industry by adding a varsity esports team, not a club housed in the student affairs division, but a varsity, intercollegiate program fully part of the Winthrop Eagles athletics department.
And as he talked about this somewhat radical idea (only 100-plus colleges in the country have varsity esports teams), the listening meeting attendees seemed very interested even if they were straining to follow the presentation’s specifics.
“If I need help with my laptop, I no longer call my daughter. I call my grandson,” said trustee Robby Sisco. “You’re gonna have to help us bridge that,” he told Halpin.
Winthrop president Dan Mahony spoke in October about his desire for the university to add destination programs in the coming years, academic or athletic programs that attract students to Winthrop who otherwise may have never considered attending the school. Examples around the Carolinas include UNC Charlotte’s motorsports engineering program, or Coastal Carolina’s turf management program for golf courses, both academic programs that are almost entirely unique to those colleges.
Esports certainly ticks that box.
“It’s a recruitment opportunity to help our enrollment with forward-thinking students,” Halpin said after the meeting.
Winthrop also looked at adding sports like cycling and disc golf, both of which have local connections. But both required travel and neither sport has a central governing body backing a college national championship.
Esports has a governing body -- the National Association of Collegiate Esports -- and requires no travel, thanks to players’ ability to compete remotely over hard-wired internet connections.
NACE was formalized in July, 2016 and has over 100 member schools. NACE provides a competitive structure to the burgeoning college e-sports scene, a national championship and also legitimacy that helps presentations like Halpin’s land with older decision-makers. Schools compete in a number of different games, including Overwatch, League of Legends, Rocket League and Counter Strike, with each program fielding different teams for different games, much like the way Winthrop’s track and field program has sprinters and pole vaulters. More than $9 million in esports scholarships are given out by NACE schools.
Most of the organization’s member schools are unrecognizable to the average college sports fan. Schools like Fontbonne University, Defiance College, Juniata College, Missouri Baptist University and Northwest Christian University don’t make it on ESPN very often.
Several two and four-year schools in South Carolina have esports teams, including Coker College and USC Sumter. Only a handful of traditional NCAA Division I athletic programs are NACE members: Boise State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Miami (OH), North Texas and Western Kentucky. Winthrop would be in rare company if it launched a varsity esports program, something Halpin made clear during his presentation to the trustees.
College esports programs are still incredibly new. Illinois’ Robert Morris University started the first one in 2014. Miami University (OH) became the first varsity esports team to join NACE at an NCAA Division I school, in 2016. The school’s library houses an esports arena equipped with the latest equipment and technology. As nice as it is, it pales in comparison to the facility at the University of California-Irvine, which has the most advanced esports program in the country, but is not a NACE member.
If esports were traditional sports, then Twitch is somewhat akin to ESPN in that it’s trying to dominate how fans and gamers watch esports. Twitch -- a web site that allows viewers to watch other people play games online -- just paid $90 million for the exclusive rights to stream the Overwatch League. An Overwatch League league official told the Sports Business Daily that Twitch “values our content at an unprecedented level for esports.”
Tyler Blevins, better known as “Ninja,” is the most famous Fortnite players in the world. He regularly plays the popular multi-player game on Twitch with six and seven-figure viewerships. On the same web site, a random child from Brazil could be playing Fortnite while two of her friends watched in Japan.
Each college esports program that joins NACE gets a Twitch channel. A Winthrop Twitch channel could put the school’s name in front of hundreds of thousands of people globally who might never hear of the school otherwise. Halpin is betting mammoth deals like the Twitch-Overwatch League one are just the tip of the iceberg, and that college esports programs could become new and unusual revenue generators.
He’s not alone in reaching that conclusion. Forbes Magazine reported that the esports industry should near a billion in revenue in 2018, a 38 percent jump from the $655 million in revenue the industry made in 2017.
“Esports is the future of competition. Period,” Mark Deppe said in a 2016 engadget.com article. Deppe is UC-Irvine’s director of esports. “It transcends language, geography, race, age, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical ability and many other identities. In five years many more schools will have official programs and more structure will be in place to regulate and provide guidance to schools. Esports also has a huge opportunity to learn from the successes and shortcomings of traditional sports and provide a model for collegiate competition in the 21st century.”
Halpin’s proposal to the trustees meeting Thursday included a hefty and already secured donor gift that would get a potential Winthrop e-sports team off the ground. It would pay for hard-wired internet -- NACE e-sports teams can’t compete on wireless, it’s too unreliable -- and special gaming chairs and screens, between $50,000 and $100,000 in total.
NACE doesn’t require its member programs to offer scholarships and there is no required travel -- again, the internet -- which makes an esports program cheaper than the disc golf or cycling possibilities that Halpin and Winthrop also explored. The recurring costs can be minimal because of the ability to compete remotely.
Halpin, who is 36 years old, occupies a middle ground between older generations that never played video games and often times scoff at them as the provenance of lazy, basement dwelling nerds, and younger generations that have grown up immersed in video game culture. He’s old enough to remember life without video games, but also young enough to appreciate gaming’s development and increasing importance.
“It’s gone into these deep, elaborate worlds that people are getting involved in, and finding ways to compete and grow with them,” he said. “A lot of your competitive gamers are watching their nutrition, are working out, are trying to maintain their elite ability to perform, from a mental standpoint. It’s taken very seriously today.”
So what’s the next step for Winthrop? Well, last Thursday’s meeting was only a proposal. So that proposal needs to be formalized and filled in with more concrete details, like where on campus the team will gather. And Halpin will continue trying to find more financial support for the idea. Maybe a sponsor for the room where the team will compete?
Once armed with a shored up esports plan, Halpin’s final step would be formal approval by the Board of Trustees.
“It’s innovative, it’s competitive and for what we do today, it’s a little outside of the box,” he said. “It’s something we’d love to make happen, if we can make it happen responsibly.”