Colleges are starting to pay attention to esports, the general term for the competitive versions of multi-player video games like League of Legends, Overwatch and HearthStone, as well as FIFA Soccer and NBA 2K.
The State University of New York (SUNY) at Canton, located in St. Lawrence County near the Canadian border, is one of the first schools in the country — and the first SUNY school — to offer an esports program.
“As we looked for ways to include our online students in our athletic department and grow their involvement in student activities, esports seemed to make a lot of sense for us,” said Randy Sieminski, athletic director at SUNY Canton. “The interest was immediate and almost overwhelming.”
The school, which launched the program in December, is currently underway on a new wireless esports arena with 24 lab stations, using high-speed Wi-Fi capabilities from Extreme Networks. Those lab stations consist of professional gaming PCs, gaming stations for consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation 4, and high-end gaming chairs, as well as projectors so that athletes can review their plays. The school has partnered with Dell for the hardware, and is looking to have the arena ready by fall.
“We’re making a home for these athletes,” said SUNY Canton CIO Kyle Brown. “Much like a traditional athletic facility, they’ll have personal locker space where they can store their own gear and headsets and mice and keyboards.”
Brown added that Extreme was the right fit for the job because of the company’s history with athletic facilities, particularly the National Football League (NFL) and the Super Bowl.
“Their experience working in athletic arenas and utilizing analytics tools to provide stable and high-speed networks has been instrumental in designing our lab,” he said. “We’re leveraging their expertise to build out a network, so it’s not just a practice or hobby space.”
Added Bob Nilsson, director of vertical solutions marketing for Extreme: “What can be critical is the responsiveness of the network for the games; milliseconds can make quite a difference. You need not just a fast network, but one that is completely reliable.”
The virtual athletic offerings are beneficial for online students, and they also tie in with recently added academic majors — SUNY Canton offers degrees in game design and development, technological communication, cybersecurity and graphics and multimedia.
“We see the [games’] potential impact on student engagement and development,” said Molly Mott, associate provost and dean of academic support services. “Esports is a way for our students to create a community of gamers that gets them together and out of their dorms. We see this is as an opportunity for experiential learning, for developing job skills and leadership roles.”
Other schools with esports programs include Kent State University, the University of California, Irvine, Boise State University and the University of Utah. The main governing body is the National Association of Collegiate Esports. SUNY Canton decided to take six esports student athletes to Albany earlier this year to compete in an event that was broadcast online.
“It was an opportunity for them to experience something different,” Sieminski said.
So far, there are about 20 students on varsity esports teams, and about 40 students who play in intramural clubs. The teams are co-ed, and there is one all-female Overwatch team.
“We have to take a new look at what our youth are interested in, what games they’re playing and where theyre spending their time,” said Sieminski. “I’m confident this is going to continue to grow.”