Michele Bates King | College esports finds an inclusive, growing niche on campus

Dr. Michele Bates King, lecturer in speech and director of esports at William & Mary, discusses the growth of collegiate esports both at the Virginia-based institution and elsewhere

Michele Bates King

Like all of you, we in the academic world are in a fluid and unpredictable environment and continue to look for positive lights in what to many, are days of gloom.

At William & Mary, one of the brighter lights has been the response and innovation around our esports work, which has provided a great experience for our students, our teams, and our community this fall while our traditional sports have been idle.

One area where we were able to pivot and provide engagement, and opportunity where there was silence was a recent week where we worked with the University of Delaware, our colleague in the Colonial Athletic Association, to reinvent our Homecoming, a time-honored tradition unfortunately devoid of its tradition for this year.

Normally we would have tailgating, events, and our football game with thousands of fans engaged. But without those normal festivities this year, we looked at a growing rivalry in esports with Delaware, and the response shed light on how new forms of student and fan engagement can complement the traditional.

In short, it was a Homecoming for the history books!

The Homecoming event was put forth as a brainstorming idea from University of Delaware’s director of student centers, Tony Doody, to create engagement opportunities during Homecoming Week. The fact that William & Mary had multiple existing esports teams, run at the institution as an academic and applied program, and had just joined the Electronic Gaming Federation (EGF), the nation’s leading Division I collegiate esports governing body, made it a good fit.

Steve Kramarck, director of esports at the University of Delaware, pointed out that the synergy between the two schools and EGF was fantastic and helped to create an event that can serve as a model for what can be accomplished when thinking outside the box.

For the week of October 20-23, that creativity was on display on Twitch. Tyler Schrodt, EGF president, helped us build an event that had more than 5,000 people tuned in to watch, in the process consuming in excess of 2,000 hours of content.

Student gamers from William & Mary’s newly-created esports team faced off against Delaware’s esports team in a series of four titles: League of Legends, Rocket League, Overwatch, and Smash Ultimate. The results were exciting with a W&M Smash win (22-14) and close games falling to University of Delaware’s LoL (0-2), RL (0-3), and OWL (0-3) teams.

The students, alumni, and gamer communities showed up. The viewers were active in chat, cheered on their schools and competitors, and lauded that they came for a good game and weren’t disappointed.

This is just one of the many ways in which the William & Mary community is innovating and adapting old traditions to meet the realities of today. The university may be one of the oldest in the United States, having been chartered in 1693, but we are focused squarely on innovation.

“This is truly a grassroots program,” said Jonathan Newby, William & Mary sophomore who is working with the Esports Advisory Board to design the school’s curriculum in this area. “I’m guided by the fact that William & Mary is a liberal arts research university and our strength is in bringing together traditional, centuries-old fields of study with the prowess of cutting-edge research and technology.”

With more high schools and institutions of higher learning across the nation rapidly implementing esports programs, it’s no surprise that the esports industry that stood at $1.48bn in revenue in 2019 is forecast to reach $6.81bn by 2027.

“This is an industry that is really growing and thriving,” said 2015 William & Mary alum Kai Martin, who is now a marketing specialist at prominent game publisher Take-Two Interactive Software. “It’s still a nascent industry, so a lot of processes and techniques are still developing while simultaneously challenging older ways of thinking.”

Where this goes in the future is not all clear in the time of uncertainty for universities, but one thing is certain. Esports, from a technology, education, team building, community building, and brand marketing opportunity is still in its early stages, and a proof of concept like our Homecoming event with Delaware shows what can be done with a little grit, a little inspiration, and lots of engagement.

Dr. Michele Bates King is a lecturer in speech at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and through her work around the business and value of board games has also become the faculty representative for the growing esports program at the school.

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