Six players signed contracts, wore Jayhawk T-shirts and put on blue KU ballcaps.
But they won’t be running onto a basketball court or football field anytime soon. They are the University of Kansas’ first varsity esports team.
Some experts have raised warning flags of a potential esports bubble, but hundreds of colleges are looking at esports as their next varsity league. KU hopes esports will drive alumni support and boost enrollment, like other sports, and it plans to use the signing-day rituals of traditional sports to give players a feeling of athletic grandeur that’s missing from esports at smaller colleges.
“It makes me feel like a basketball NBA rookie signing onto a basketball team,” said KU senior esport gamer Chenhui Liu.
Building a team
Esports are expected to become a billion-dollar market by the end of the year, according to esports analytics company Newzoo. The live gaming streaming site Twitch regularly has well over a million viewers at any given moment.
That popularity led KU and Missouri Western State University to announce this semester that they’re creating varsity teams.
But despite that growth, schools are still figuring out what college esports should look like: How big of a budget does a team need? What tournaments do you join? How do you practice? Should esports fall under the athletics department or student affairs?
Even the question of what games to play still confounds colleges.
“We just don’t know what is the secret sauce,” said Yvette Wohn, an assistant professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology who researches esports.
KU’s esports team falls under the Department of Student Affairs, because the athletics department said it wasn’t interested. The team doesn’t have an official budget, and Dell Computers donated most of the equipment.
Still, KU is hoping to borrow the appearance of traditional sports, betting that leaning into the history and prestige of the Jayhawk name will set it apart from community colleges and smaller universities in Kansas and across the nation with already formed teams.
Schools like Wichita State University have already beaten KU to establishing a varsity esports team. But Wohn said KU is still ahead of many big four-year public schools.
“For any new program, it takes several years to really iron out the kinks,” Wohn said.
Like KU’s other sports, the school is investing in esports to three groups happy — alumni, high schoolers and current students.
Some research has shown a correlation between alumni donations and wins on the football field. KU’s esports coach, Michelle Compton-Muñoz, said alumni are already expressing excitement about getting to cheer on the virtual KU team.
“We’ve had a lot of alums reach out say that that’s really cool that they get to see the official KU name … in the esports world,” Compton-Muñoz said.
And enticing high schoolers with the prospect of earning a varsity letter by gaming at KU could boost enrollment —an area all Kansas universities have been struggling with over the last decade.
“There’s a lot of high schoolers who are emailing me and saying they’re really interested in coming to play for us and that that could get them to come to KU,” Compton-Munoz said.
While the idea of varsity esports might draw eyerolls off campus, students in KU’s student union have no issue with competitive gaming. Even students that don’t consider themselves gamers support the idea of a KU team competing with buttons instead of helmets.
“I’ve grown up in a culture that’s very pro-video games,” KU student Sydney Summers said. “It deserves to be recognized.”
Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.
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