PORT ANGELES — A whole new ballgame doubling as an extracurricular activity and potential career path awaits Peninsula College students.
The school is leaping into the rapidly growing world of esports — competitive video and computer gaming — with college administrators searching for the first esports head coach to lead the next generation of student-athletes.
Esports as an industry is rapidly becoming big business with revenues projected to top $1 billion worldwide this year and more than 2.4 billion people expected to play some form of video game, according to industry researcher Newzoo.
Viewership of one of the largest esports games championships, the League of Legends World Championship Finals in November 2018, drew more than 100 million viewers online, a larger audience than for that year’s Super Bowl (98 million).
Professional esports athletes are making big bucks and starting to draw the attention of mainstream advertisers.
At the collegiate level, expansion is rapid as more than 150 esports programs around the country offer more than $15 million in scholarships to prospective players.
For Peninsula, suffering from an $800,000 budget deficit attributed to a decline in enrollment in recent years, establishing an esports program is a relatively low-cost way to build enrollment by offering an attractive program to potential students.
“One of the reasons students choose community colleges is for the diverse range of instructional and co-curricular programs we offer,” said Rick Ross, Peninsula’s associate dean for athletics and student programs.
“Esports offers a relatively new opportunity for students who enjoy competitive gaming to be part of a team, just like their classmates who play soccer or basketball, or students who enroll in drama, or jazz choir. That team will be made up of players from all over the world, and it will have a support network to guide them through the completion of their degree, and to play a role in the development of their talent, their interpersonal skills, cultural competence and critical thinking.”
Ross said his boss, Jack Huls, Peninsula’s vice president of student services, sent him and Dennis Hill from the school’s Information Technologies department on a fact-finding trip to the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) National Convention last summer in Atlanta.
“We wanted to learn more and figure out how to implement, or if we wanted to implement an esports program,” Ross said.
“From an old-school sports perspective it was eye-opening to me. NACE is kind of the overarching governing body at the collegiate level. “We learned quite a bit about how to launch an esports program and why colleges are moving in this direction.”
Ross learned that most esports-offering schools treat their gamers as they would any other student-athletes competing for athletic programs.
He came away impressed that the academic requirements, including full-time status as students and qualifying GPAs, are the same for virtual and traditional athletes.
And the trip erased the common stereotypes of video gamers as socially awkward, lazy, basement-dwellers who spend all of their spare time gaming.
“That’s what I went to Atlanta thinking about and imagining and I realized these are student-athletes,” Ross said.
“We learned that many esports teams also spend time in the weight room, doing cardio training and some even practice yoga,” Ross said.
The college is now ramping up for the program to make its initial debut in the 2019-2020 school year. That process begins with hiring a head coach.
“Step one is hire a coach and learn more about recruiting,” Ross said. “We expect to have an intercollegiate team and an esports club for recreational gamers. We hope to build some courses to support them as many of these students are looking for technology-based instruction. Our media program and our cyber security program are likely something that esports athletes would be interested in.”
“We are hoping to have the coach hired within the next month and then we have some marketing we are going to work on with the program to attract esports athletes.”
Ross expects much of the initial makeup of the program to come from the North Olympic Peninsula.
“Most of the esports athletes would be people already at the college or those in the community who would like to enroll and some mid-summer or late-summer signees that have plans to go elsewhere and then learn about our offerings,” Ross said.
Ross said recruiting is probably the biggest unknown surrounding the program.
“There is a system for recruiting high school athletes to colleges,” Ross said. “A soccer coach goes and watches prep games, or select teams to evaluate talent and then builds relationships and finds the right fit. With esports we are a little bit unsure about that. Schools that have started programs are kind of collectively trying to figure that out. Where do you find esports athletes? It’s a little like track and field and swimming, when evaluating those athletes you can compare their distances, their times. Putting together a competitive team I would imagine we would look at scores in popular esports games like Overwatch, League of Legends and Smash Bros. If they fit you can then look at their high school grades, their other activities.”
Infrastructure-wise, esports requires high-speed fiber-link internet to avoid lag during online play sessions and personal computers geared with powerful graphics cards to ensure the most competitive conditions.
Ross said the college would be “working on getting some additional mileage out of those computers by using them as part of the school’s media program to benefit the instructional curriculum as well as esport athletes.”
Peninsula subscribes to a plan that provides funds to upgrade campus computers each year, and Ross said that plan could be used to purchase high-quality equipment, trimming about half off the program’s expected startup costs of $20,000 to $45,000.
Other expenses include gaming chairs, ergonomic keyboards and computer mice, uniforms and graphics for whatever campus space winds up serving as the squad’s practice room or “arena” in esports jargon.
Ross stressed that no final decision had been made on where to house the esports team, but there is a frontrunner.
“We have a technology building, Keegan Hall,” Ross said. “It’s not decided yet, there’s a committee that makes the final call on where to house the esports arena, which is essentially a media classform transformed into a gaming venue.”
A larger lecture hall in Keegan Hall could serve as a competition venue.
“We have a beautiful lecture hall in Keegan Hall where we might host games,” Ross said.
“There’s a giant screen and plenty of seats, so that could be where matches are played and practice sessions will occur in a classroom.”
“There’s no travel really, there could be somewhere in the future, but most of the competitions you play matches online at your computer. The annual expenditures are pretty minor.” Ross estimated those costs at being less than $20,000 per year.
There are longstanding esports competitions built around traditional sports such as NFL football (the Madden series); NBA (NBA 2K series); and FIFA soccer, but more colleges are playing Overwatch, a first-person shooter with a host of cartoon elements; League of Legends, a multiplayer battle arena strategy game or Rocket League, a soccer-driving action-sports hybrid.
Other popular esports games include Hearthstone and battle royale-style games such as Fortnite or Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds.
“We are not locked into any of the games so far,” Ross said. “The industry is constantly changing and what’s popular now may not be a year or two down the road.”
Ross said students had reacted positively when they first heard of plans for an esports team.
“The takeaway is current students are very enthusiastically looking forward to and anxious for this to happen,” Ross said. “One of the [off-campus] residence hall employees is a professional gamer and is a student here and he was excited about the idea and wanted to help either as a participant or being involved. Our student government has supported it and are student-athletes, some of them play games recreationally, and they’ve been behind it.”
Holding esports camps for area youth and all-comers tournaments with members of the public taking on Peninsula esports players also is in the cards.
Ross knows the entire esports concept is new to many and the college will have to educate the public about the new offering.
“Especially my generation,” Ross said. “I think I did a presentation last year to one of the service clubs and they just stared at me. But I think when people learn more about it and read about it, they’ll understand it is college students pursuing an activity they enjoy.”