The fall semester will see a varsity level esports team specializing in the game Overwatch
Students without an interest in typical sports but with a competitive streak will soon get a chance to play games at a higher level, according to officials with Finger Lakes Community College. The college currently has plans to unveil a varsity-level esports team in the upcoming fall semester, specializing in the video game Overwatch.
Current plans for the team, which will be playing specific video games at a competitive level, online and at different tournament locations, will be 10 to 15 coed students, coached by FLCC Assistant Professor of Modern Languages Michael Van Etten. The team will practice their skills at the school’s software development lab, sharing space alongside students in the college’s Game Programming and Design program.
Yet there’s hope for expansion at the college among faculty.
“I would love to put in a $2.5 million arena, but that’s not going to happen,” said Will McLaughlin, chairperson of FLCC’s Computing Sciences Department and esports coordinator.
The Overwatch team will be sharing lab space, “for the first year or two," according to Robert Lowden, director of athletics for FLCC. "As we expand down the road,” he said, the college “may have to give them their own space with their own computers and so on and so forth.”
Lowden, director of athletics for FLCC, also said having a varsity team in a SUNY school will help attract more students to the college, much like the recruiting process for more traditional college sports teams.
“Our baseball players are going to look at our baseball program as well as our academic program. They’re going to look at the whole package, and I foresee that happening with the kids that are coming up that are gaming, so to speak, that play in the esports," Lowden said. "They’re going to say, ‘geez, who has the programs. I want to continue to compete.’ It might make us more attractive, a more attractive option for them down the road.”
McLaughlin also believes esports can be a good investment for the college, given how “it kind of is” a unique form of competitive play for a college-aged generation.
“Younger youth tend to like watching these competitions as much as the older generations like to watch athletic sports," McLaughlin said.
There’s also big business in the esports arena, according to market forecasts. In a 2019 report on the market by the analytics firm Newzoo, the competitive gaming craze will exceed $1 billion in overall revenue worldwide. This will mark an increase of 26.7 percent from last year, with total revenues at $906 million. Some of the biggest drivers of revenue for esports include sponsorship, which is estimated to be $456.7 million, with media rights being the fastest-growing revenue stream, at $251.3 million.
However, while the business of esports is expanding, with global interest not only in playing the games but watching them, FLCC first needed to be convinced of the game’s merits.
Which is exactly what Bryson Cole hoped to do.
Cole, 20, is a student majoring in tourism management at FLCC, although his current passion is gaming.
“I’ve always been interested in a game called Super Smash Brothers,” he said, noting how the fighting game “is kind of the only game I’m good at.”
Cole first began playing video games when he was 12, getting into competitive gaming by the age of 16. For him, esports was not only a way to indulge in a passion, but a way to become part of a community.
“I’ve found, time and time again, that people would invite me out to tournaments. If I couldn’t go, like if I couldn’t drive, they would have, like, people drive you. Sometimes if you can’t cover the register fee, people cover it for you," he said. "It’s just a very welcoming community, that just really enjoys the game and enjoys the company of everyone else who enjoys the game.”
After enrolling with FLCC in 2017, Cole became president of the college’s Electronic Gaming Society, a club for students with an interest in casual gaming. While there was interest in moving toward playing games competitively among the student body, he couldn’t get any interest from the college itself. According to Cole, “we found there wasn’t really much of a way to have a competitive team in that sort of club environment,” due to the by-laws of the club.
However, Cole and his fellow student advocates were “absolute machete users, cutting through red tape,” according to Jacob Lorah, volunteer esports coach for FLCC’s League of Legends team. Cole soon moved on to the athletics department, speaking to Lowden directly in the spring of 2017.
“It was one of the things walking into the room I knew my whole job was to be to educate them,” Cole said.
Cole spoke to the Athletics Department in several meetings, although there were “no guarantees or any sort of yes or no.” However, the college had begun taking tentative steps forward, tapping McLaughlin to do additional research on the game.
McLaughlin first spoke to Rochester Institute of Technology, which was, according to the professor’s estimation, “18 months ahead of us.” After meeting with RIT’s Chad Weeden, the college’s esports adviser, McLaughlin’s next stop was Atlanta, which was hosting the first national esports convention, organized by the National Association of Collegiate Esports. According to McLaughlin, the conference had “tons of information there.” After speaking with personnel who had created esports programs at other colleges, he was able to get “an idea of a pathway moving forward. An implementation plan,” which was carried out in the fall of 2018. “It’s a process.”
While the college currently doesn’t have affiliation, Lowden said FLCC is looking at several of junior collegiate associations, including NACE.
“I’m not going to say unequivocally” that the college will be affiliated with NACE, “but that, that’s one of the big ones,” Lowden said.
Currently, Overwatch is the only varsity-level team that will be competing and have institutional support, although Cole and Lorah both hope to get additional games sponsored through the program. While a number of games were in competition for varsity-level coaching and support, “Overwatch won the draw,” according to McLaughlin.
Lorah, however, bears no grudge, describing Van Etten as, “perfect for this trial run.”
Cole is similarly pleased at seeing the college recognize esports as a viable activity, hoping it will open doors and shine a light on the modern gamer.
“I think it’s very interesting, because of how accessible video games are in general," Cole said. "It makes it so a lot of people are easier to access it, it’d be easier to start a sort of competitive tournament. It allows for a lot of different people to be able to meet and grow and bond.”
“I hope it’s something that every student who comes to FLCC has the opportunity to compete in. I think it’s something that I think has the potential to grow into something equivalent to the current FLCC athletic program,” he said. “I think esports has an opportunity to grow into that, and I think it’s something that can be very good for any person who has any sort of video game passion. It’s something that I think the community can grow out of, and continue, and sustain through the years.”
For more perspective on esports; check out Messenger Post Media Sports Editor, Bob Chavez's column from March 8.