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The esports emergence: Summit to highlight careers on virtual battlefield

Originally published March 24, 2019 by Kyrie Long at the Fairbanks Daily News-Minor. Click here to view the article in its original format.

FAIRBANKS — Noting the rising interest in esports, or competitive video gaming, the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Management has been looking for ways to engage with students on the topic, paving the way for the first “eSports and Gaming Summit” on campus.

A growing part of the video game industry, esports are becoming a viable career option as colleges across the nation begin to develop esports leagues and curriculum. The National Association of Collegiate Esports, a nonprofit organization founded in 2016 working to expand esports opportunities in the college sphere, currently has more than 130 school partners across the country. It has also developed millions of dollars in scholarships and helps put on esports conventions.

The UAF esports summit, which takes place Saturday, will be part gameplay, part exploration of the gaming industry and the future of video games on college campuses.

“Really, the School of Management is very much interested in the curriculum, and we’re working with UAF to possibly get a jump-start on some sort of arena,” said Mark Hermann, dean of the School of Management.

He added the “arena” isn’t a sports stadium in the classic sense; his idea is the university could use an unused classroom, and set up computer equipment in it.

Hermann, longtime fan and player of “World of Warcraft,” said Generation Z is super creative bunch, listing esports, anime, graphic novels and other media as prominent examples of fields he’d like to see explored more and offered to students at the campus.

He said it could be a way to foster communication across campuses, especially at rural campuses, by getting students to engage with each other online.

“We think it would be a good connection for students to start getting involved with other students with these kinds of interests,” Hermann said.

Margaret Keiper, an assistant professor with UAF’s School of Management, has been publishing articles in academic journals on the topic of esports for the last four years.

Keiper is running an events management class this semester that consists of 14 undergraduates who have been planning the esports summit. The class has put together a full day of gameplay and breakout sessions.

“People can drop in and play essentially console-based or PC games and the equipment is provided,” she said. “They can also check out new games through some of the companies and organizations that will be there.”

Esports on campus

The list of speakers at the inaugural esports summit includes John Spiher, director of partnerships with the Houston Outlaws, an esports league team, and keynote speaker Jimmy Chan, from Twitch, a livestreaming website and platform popular among esports enthusiasts.

Chan helped found the esports club at the University of Houston and serves as an alumni adviser for the club. He’s working with University of Houston professors to help design classes around esports.

“In my eyes esports is like a traditional sport but in digital form, so it allows you to compete without physical boundary,” Chan said in an interview earlier this week.

Chan is coming to the summit to talk about the Twitch Student Program, which he completed while in college. The program, available at twitch.tv/p/students, aims to give students applicable job skills and build their resumes, even if they don’t end up in the esports industry.

Chan gave the example of digital marketing majors being able to create emotes used by other students and subscribers to put on a resume or portfolio. Emotes are small pictures people can send in the chat function on Twitch and which could be available on their Twitch page.

“So we are basically giving real-world scenario, practical experience to students before they even get out of college,” he said.

Breakout sessions speaker Joey Gawrysiak is director of esports and sport management at Shenandoah University in Virginia. For the first time this fall his university is offering a Bachelor of Science in esports. Shenandoah University has a team with the National Association of Collegiate Esports.

“I’ll be speaking more on the collegiate side of things, but I’m also working with the state of Virginia here to talk about bringing esports to high schools across the state,” Gawrysiak said.

Gawrysiak, who grew up playing video games and sports, thinks esports are “the sport of the future” and that the industry is at a critical point where it can learn from traditional sports programs.

“So I think that video games really have a chance to be a huge global sport in the future and not just a trend, a flash in the pan or anything like that,” he said.

Luke Meinert, who is speaking during the esports teams and leagues breakout session, is the founder of the Alaska esports league esportsAK. He selected the Electronic Gaming Federation as a partner, and in 2018, Alaska’s esports league started its first official season.

In its first season esportsAK worked with 30 schools across seven school districts in the state. Anchorage teams went to state championships last year and won two out of three tournaments.

“The Mat-Su school district was definitely our largest school district that participated,” Meinert said.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District is waiting to see if the Alaska School Activities Association, which regulates Alaska’s high school activities, will sanction esports before high schools in the area can join the league, according to Meinert, who said he’s aware of some informal school clubs already playing for fun. He wants to see the state continue to grow its esports community.

“I would like to see a clearer direction of how esports is going to develop within our university system,” Meinert said. “I think we’re on great momentum with our high school students around the state, and if there’s now an opportunity for them to play at the collegiate level around the state, that would be a really great opportunity for our students.”

Keiper said there will be time throughout the summit for attendees to talk with speakers outside of breakout sessions.

Gameplay and students

Registration is not required to attend the summit, but people who want to have breakfast and lunch provided need to fill out a registration form at the School of Management’s website before Tuesday. Currently about 100 people are registered according to Keiper.

There will also be time set aside for the judging of two contests, both of which require 8:30 a.m. entry dropoffs: the logo design contest for the campus eSports and Gaming Club and the Gaming Art Contest. Requirements can be found online at www.uaf.edu/som/degrees/undergraduate/bsrb/esports-summit/.

A “Super Smash Bros.” tournament is being hosted by the UAF eSports and Gaming Club, whose members are helping set up the “gameplay” side of the summit.

Each match will be best two out of three games, with players given three lives and an eight-minute time limit. Players have to lose two matches to be eliminated. There’s a $250 gift card for the winner.

Aharon Hughes, president of the club, said he thinks gamers are an “untapped well of potential” at UAF, and he has seen a wide variety of people at club meetings.

“There’s not correlation as far as majors go,” he said. “I’ve seen marketing majors, engineers, math majors, bio. Pretty much every major demographic there is, I’ve seen people at that club.”

Hughes added the club has had several people just drop in and play, including university staff, people from the Office of Information and Technology as well as Wood Center visitors.

“No real connections except everyone plays video games,” he said.

Hughes mentioned he would like to see the summit result in more exposure for Alaska at the collegiate level and nationally in the esports world.

“I’ve heard discussions of potentially an esports team for the university,” he said, “which I think would be amazing if the university started competing at a national scale in games, like ‘Overwatch’ or ‘League of Legends,’ that would be great.”

As for gameplay at the summit, attendees are advised to bring their own controllers, although there may be some spares, and Hughes is getting people from the community to bring Nintendo Switches and other consoles, as well as some PCs, with some equipment set up for tournament practice and some left for casual players.

“I think this conference, above everything else, is also a celebration of video gaming,” he said.

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