Esports at EU: a look into the digital future of athletics at Edinboro

Category:  Sports
Wednesday, September 19th, 2018 at 5:40 PM

Like so many others, Head Men’s and Women’s Swimming Coach Chris Rhodes keeps an eye on his alma mater.

So when one of his former institutions, Ashland University, announced they were launching an esports team as part of their athletics department, and which would begin competing this fall, Rhodes looked into it.

Then he told anyone at Edinboro who would listen about it.

Ashland, where Rhodes earned his master’s degree in reading (he went to Edinboro as an undergrad), was forming an esports team that would compete in popular online games like “Fortnite,” “Rocket League,” “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive: and “Starcraft 2.”

The idea didn’t gain much traction in early 2018, but he kept with it even as the athletics department and university underwent dramatic changes in leadership.

When Rhodes found his way to Vice President for Enrollment Management Bill Edmonds in April, he found a sympathetic ear. Edmonds saw the opportunity to attract new students, Rhodes explained, and was just as excited about the idea of bringing esports to Edinboro. Unknown to Rhodes was that Edmonds had made the same pitch to the administration of California University of Pennsylvania, where he worked at the time, four years ago. The Vulcans do not currently have an esports team.

“So I presented it, and it was a little bit of a work-in-progress trying to convince some people about it,” Rhodes said. “To me it just shows when people work together, great things can really happen.”

After months of working to develop the idea, visiting Ashland University to learn from their experiences, and planning a marketing and recruiting strategy with Edmonds and Assistant Vice President for Marketing and Communications Angela Burrows, Interim Athletics Director Katherine Robbins announced Monday via an email to Edinboro students and faculty the launch of a Fighting Scots esports team, housed under the athletics department, that will begin competition during the 2019-2020 school year.

“We’ve had a really busy summer,” Robbins said of developing the esports program while getting acclimated to her interim position. “We’ve been working on a lot of initiatives.”

Rhodes will oversee the team as director, but he would be the first to admit he shouldn’t be the one in charge of coaching the team. Instead, the school will look to hire a coaching staff to support Rhodes and the student-athletes.

“Coach Rhodes is…going to be the director of esports, and then we’re going to look at hiring maybe some student workers who are gamers, or a grad assistant who’s a gamer to handle more the coaching aspect under the direction of coach Rhodes,” Robbins explained.

Rhodes added that the nature of the team will provide an opportunity for the players to coach each other, and that his new responsibilities will not detract from his swim coaching duties.

“I think that education-wise, being a past teacher, the concepts of peer mentoring, peer tutoring [and] peer teaching [apply here],” he said.

Because esports will be treated the same as other sports such as swimming or football, participants will be held to the same standards as their other student-athlete peers. This means they will have to remain on track for graduation, maintain a certain minimum GPA and remain a full-time student while competing. But they will also benefit from the same opportunities other student-athletes receive such as priority scheduling, tutoring services and, yes, perhaps financial aid.

“We are definitely looking into that,” Rhodes said. If the team was considered a recreational sport or student affairs program rather than athletic team, he said, those benefits would not be accessible.

Edmonds said the combination of a formal esports team, as well as the benefits of being housed under athletics, create another opportunity to attract a different kind of student.

“On the recruitment side, students that may have never heard of Edinboro that are gamers, students that maybe have been considering Edinboro but maybe we were on their long list, not on their short list, by providing this esports team, I think...it draws them in to take a closer look,” he said.

Rhodes said the team will compete in “League of Legends,” “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” “Hearthstone” and “Fortnite” to start, but may be open to adding games in the future. 

“The thought process is kind of like swimming or track and field where [in] track and field you have throwers, you have runners, you have jumpers. Everyone is doing different events, but they’re still one team,” he said. “So it’s going to be essentially three or four people doing this game, three or four people doing this game, that type of [organization].”

Because esports is neither a PSAC nor NCAA sport, the team will compete as a varsity sport as part of the National Association of Collegiate eSports, which provides a governing body similar to the function of the NCAA. A flyer for the association estimates the startup cost of an esports program to be $32,000.

Rhodes stressed that esports encourages teams to use the same traits that offline sports require. The teamwork, coordination and communication required for success in esports mirrors those same characteristics that a basketball team might need to succeed.

“You know, I have two boys that play ‘Fortnite,’ and they could play it 24/7 if I would let them,” he said. “And listening to them and the way they communicate with…their cousin in Erie or something — there’s a lot of great things with it.”

Rhodes said he expects the team to be formed by a mixture of current students who are active gamers as well as incoming freshmen or transfers who might be enticed by the new program.

Robbins, Edmonds and Rhodes seemed excited about the prospect of creating this program before the esports trend spreads to a majority of universities. The initial announcement boasted that less than 100 universities provide an esports program and that Edinboro’s will be the first in Western Pennsylvania.

The announcement also alluded to the university’s established game design and animation programs.

“It’s just not like, we have the esports team. We had programs prior to the team that were doing stuff like this and helping our students learn about this stuff anyways,” Edmonds said. “Now it just fits nicely.”

In addition to forming a team, Edinboro will spend the next year putting the necessary infrastructure in place to support the program.

“We’re in the process of upgrading a lab and getting sponsors, and just working out the logistics of esports,” Robbins said.

Rhodes added that possible locations for the team’s lab include the university library, the Pogue Student Center and Hamilton Hall.

“Our goal isn’t to disrupt the math department, computer science department or any other department,” he said. “But we also want to have a space designated for esports because that shows the commitment that we have to it and to our student-athletes.

“I think it just kind of shows how serious we are about it and that it’s not just, OK, get together and play a bunch of games, but this is at the forefront and this is something that in our society now is really growing and is going to be something very serious,” Rhodes continued. “And that’s kind of what we want to prepare people for so that when they leave here, they can maybe have a career in esports.”

Christopher Rosato Jr. can be reached at sports.spectator@gmail.com.

Tags: sports, esports

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