The Zips esports facility. (Photo: Erik Svensson)

Esports program at University of Akron wraps its first semester

by Erik Svensson

For generations, parents have said that video games will rot the brain.

But at the University of Akron and dozens of other universities nationwide, video games could win students a scholarship.

In December 2017, the university announced plans to create an esports program that would “mirror traditional varsity athletics.” In the following months, the university built out its teams and coaching staffs and began constructing an arena and other facilities. Players try out for teams, adhere to practice schedules, and are subject to academic oversight, the university says.

UA is not the only U.S. university building facilities for esports teams. Western Michigan University unveiled its own esports arena on Oct. 5, 2018, the same day UA did. Ohio State University recently announced plans to build one too.

UA’s program has varsity teams in the games Rocket League, Overwatch, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Hearthstone and League of Legends. There are also club teams, which play a wider range of games, and a recreational program for players not looking to play competitively. The university is also offering scholarships of up to $5,000 for varsity players.

The University of Akron’s administration took the lead in creating the program — a move that even Michael Fay, Jr., UA’s esports program director, found surprising. Former UA President Matthew Wilson pushed the initiative, and Fay was hired to direct the program in January.

The Zips esports facility. (Photo: Erik Svensson)

Fay had coached amateur Canadian teams in League of Legends and has followed esports since he was a teen. He says he was surprised by the university’s initiative to create its own program.

“Usually it’s an active student group that has been competing as a club team or informal group, and then they advocate to the administration for official support,” says Fay. “But in this case it was actually the opposite.”

Wilson explained that, while he was president, he was on the lookout for ways to distinguish the university. He discovered esports at a university level and thought it seemed like an exciting prospect.

“I was taken aback by the esports industry and what it had grown into,” said Wilson. “It’s a billion-dollar industry, with applications in the entertainment world, the sports world and the medical world. I thought it would benefit us to be on this cutting edge.”

Wilson believes that the program could be applied to a variety of academic programs.

“We found applications academically, and saw a whole host of things that stuck out. One big part of esports is communications. A big aspect is not just playing, but viewership, and (we) thought about making that a component of communications courses. We could have courses on the business of esports… and maybe we could have a course on video game law.”

But not everyone was so enthusiastic about esports.

The Zips esports facility. (Photo: Erik Svensson)

The new facilities cost UA roughly $750,000. The university announced in June that it is operating on a $16 million deficit this fiscal year. And in August, UA announced that it would be cutting 80 “underperforming” programs, about 20 percent of the degrees currently offered serving about 5 percent of the student body. 

In August, members of the American Association of University Professors based in Ohio sent a letter to the University of Akron’s administration, criticizing what they felt to be a lack of care for education.

“It is as though you are saying: Well, we are bored with education so let’s play games instead,” wrote John T. McNay, a professor at University of Cincinnati.

In addition, the local AAUP feels the resources allocated to the esports program in comparison to academic programs is neglectful on the administration’s part.

“There are programs that are really struggling, and we’re being told to just deal with it. We’re not really putting enough into academics,” says Pamela Schulze, president of the Akron-AAUP’s executive committee and a professor in UA’s Child & Family Development department.

Schulze says she has no problem with an esports program as a concept, but feels that the investment in a new athletics program detracts from academics at the university.

“I think that people who are spending money on education have a right to expect their money is actually going to education,” Schulze says.

She adds, “The optics of the cuts being followed by the investment in this program, looks bad. Our primary focus should be spending money on things that directly benefit students right now.”

However, it’s not like there aren’t any students interested. During the spring 2018 semester, Fay recalls that roughly 1,100 students tried out for the chance to play video games competitively at a varsity level.

The Zips esports facility. (Photo: Erik Svensson)

Gage Pamer, a freshman at UA, decided to attend the university after trying out and getting a spot on the Blue varsity team for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

“I had thought about going to Akron, but I was going to go to Stark State because it would be cheaper, but finding out about the team really pushed me towards Akron.”

Pamer is interested in esports photography and filmography and hopes to continue to be a part of the esports community after graduation.

Cole Jones, a junior cybersecurity major and member of the Gold team for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive was also drawn to the university by the esports program. Jones says he transferred to the University of Akron to participate in esports.

According to Fay, students have begun to attend matches as spectators, cheering on the competing teams. Fay believes the validation of support from the university, fans and independent companies has helped boost his team’s confidence.

“The difference in energy for the team while they’re competing is really night and day,” says Fay. “From being alone in a room in front of a bunch of computers to being in front of a cheering crowd — it does wonders for them.”

In a match against an OSU team, Jones says the program’s arena was filled up by fans.

“We’ve played two matches in the arena, and both of them had a ton of people supporting us. When OSU came to play against us, we ran out of space.”

The Zips esports facility. (Photo: Erik Svensson)

The teams also have “partnerships” with companies. Audio Technica supplied the team’s headsets, Gravity Gaming donated gaming PCs and consoles and Steelseries gave the team keyboards, mouse pads and mice.

Audio-Technica is contributing money for two $2,500 scholarships for one varsity esports player and one audio-engineering student per year. According to the university’s Office of Financial Aid, the audio engineering scholarship will be rewarded to students involved in the esports program as well.

“I think we’re very lucky that we have this kind of gear,” says Matt Speidel, the student coach for the university’s Counter Strike: Global Offensive team. “Having professional companies say ‘we like what you’re doing; we want to be a part of it’ legitimizes what we’re doing.”

Winning tournaments could be another source of revenue for the university. The university claims in a fact sheet that in professional esports, “top teams and individuals have made up to $10 million through prizes and scholarships.”

Schulze notes that while she isn’t aware of every aspect of the program, it is unclear to her how the program plans to make money.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that it’s going to attract revenue,” Schulze says. “It seems from my standpoint from meetings I’ve attended that it’s just this cool thing that would get in the media a lot.”

So far, UA’s esports teams have done well in their inaugural seasons. The Gold Rocket League team took third place in a Collegiate Rocket League Tournament this fall. Many teams have won most of their matches in their first semester of play.

Esports has created a new path for students to consider at the University of Akron. What happens at the next level remains to be seen.

Erik Svensson is a senior at Kent State University, where he studies journalism.