Varsity program at Concordia-St. Paul a sign esports is on the rise

December 16, 2018 06:00 PM

The idea of playing video games competitively may once have seemed like a niche pursuit.

But the popularity of esports continues to grow, including at the high school and college levels.

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And Minnesota is no exception to that trend.

Which is why Concordia-St. Paul has decided to elevate esports to the level of a varsity team.

Esports exist at the club level at a number of schools in Minnesota, and those teams compete for scholarship money awarded through competitions. But Concordia-St. Paul is believed to be the first school in the state to elevate it to varsity status.

The school announced earlier this month that it plans to add a varsity esports program beginning with the 2019-20 school year. The head coaching position is now being advertised and associate director of athletics Regan McAthie said officials plan to begin reviewing resumes after the first of the year.

The team will be coed, with men and women competing alongside each other.

"It's really been about a year-and-a-half, or really almost a two-year process," McAthie said. "It started with a strategic plan we put together for our athletic department. As part of the process, we gathered students and staff together and just sort of threw stuff out. Really anything we could think of that might be coming down the line in the future.

"One of our assistant basketball coaches mentioned that esports really seemed to be getting big. And we kind of chuckled. But we wrote it on the board. And from there on out, I began to pay attention whenever I'd see an esports announcement or a job listing.

"And they seemed to start coming more and more frequently."

RELATED: Esports gain popularity on University of Minnesota campus

Indeed, Concordia-St. Paul will become a member of the National Association of Collegiate Esports - an organization that began in July 2016. At that time, according to its website, only seven colleges and universities had varsity programs. Just over two years later, the organization says the number has grown rapidly.

"We started looking at the costs and expenses," McAthie said. "And we compared it to the benefits it could bring, like revenue from the students having this kind of program might attract. And it quickly became apparent this was a sound financial decision."

McAthie said the program will be administered like any other varsity sport, including when it comes to awarding scholarships through the institution itself. The school is currently renovating a space the team can use for practice and competitions, and plans to provide equipment to participants.

But many decisions regarding the makeup of the program, including which games to compete in, will not be made until a head coach is in place.

"There will be scholarships available, and it will be handled in a similar way to how we award scholarships in all of our other sports," McAthie said. "We're a Division II school and we go on a partial-scholarship model. Very few student-athletes here are on a full ride. It's typically a couple of thousand dollars here and a couple of thousand dollars there.

"But we will approach our esport athletes the way we do all of our other athletes. We want them to compete and be successful. But the main goal is to bring them here and help them through to graduation."

McAthie said the nature of esports is that the team will be competing remotely for most competitions. But the hope is that an on-site competition against a team in at least somewhat close geographic proximity could be held at least once a year.

Esports continues to grow at the high school level as well. 

Jacob Utities, a business and computer science teacher at St. Louis Park High School, got a program going there in the fall of 2017.

He now oversees around nine different teams competing over five different games with around 40 students taking part in all. The St. Louis Park "Overwatch" team won the national title last year, earning $15,000 in scholarships.

Utities said the number of Minnesota teams competing as part of the High School Esports League has grown from four or five a year ago to 16 or more this year.

And his program was scheduled to host the first on-site tournament between three league-sanctioned teams Sunday at the Left Click Lounge in Dinkytown. Also taking part was scheduled to be Washington Technology Magnet School and Rosemount High School.

"It's a huge trend that is coming to the Midwest, finally, and it will only get bigger and bigger," said Utities, a competitive player himself.

The sport is not yet recognized by the Minnesota State High School League as a varsity activity, but Utities hopes that changes sometime soon.

"That's the ultimate goal," he said. "That's what those of us in the esports community are hoping for."

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