As our series about collegiate esports continues, we have the opportunity to speak with Albert Lee, who is Esports Coordinator at Grand Canyon University. Albert's experience spans both the purely administrative side of things and community building. Collegiate esports has shown great promise so far, and while not everyone agrees where it's headed next, many people feel confident that competitive video gaming is here to stay.
Albert has helped the university build for the grounds up and expands its facilities, so he is in a position to answer the questions that have been on our mind, dismiss the ones that aren't too important, and point us towards the trends we should be keeping an eye out for.
Q: Albert, thank you for agreeing to speak with us. We appreciate your time, especially given your experience in collegiate esports. Actually, you have been building esports communities for a while now. Can you tell us why you picked esports as a career path?
A: Thank you for having me here. Looking back, the choice of esports as a career really was, more or less, a spontaneous choice: I had graduated in 2018 from Georgia Institute of Technology and was primarily focused on applying to atypical engineering jobs. At the same time, I couldn't help but feel that I could take my passions and my experiences as a student leader in collegiate esports to the professional level. What began as a desire turned into half of my job hunt, shifting towards helping university administrators with launching esports programs. Eventually, I applied to Grand Canyon University's new role for their investment into esports.
Q: You started as an esports administrator at the same time you were doing your MBA there. Is this correct? Was it difficult for you to build from the grounds up, or was there already interest in competitive video gaming at GCU?
A: Like many other universities that have launched programs over the past few years, GCU had a unique start: While many collegiate esports programs today launched with a preexisting student community or organizational support behind them, GCU launched their esports department, competitive program, and student organization all at the same time. As part of that initiative, I was hired as lead for esports – my MBA followed after that.
When it comes to difficulty, I would say the process of building a program was a lot of logistical work behind-the-scenes with many roadblocks, whereas finding and building up student interest was smooth in comparison: The college demographic naturally contains a significant group of passionate gamers, and universities providing esport program for both the competitive and community sides creates an outlet that caters to an underserved part of the student body.
GCU Esports grew in its first year of operations from nothing to over 600 registered student members and seventeen collegiate teams. By the midpoint of the second year, the program had a consistent growth of over a thousand students each academic year and supported over twenty teams. At the same time, the program had become one of the top three recruitment factors for the campus, where over one in three committed students listed esports as a significant factor in their decision to attend GCU or why they first heard about GCU.
Q: In your years of experience as an esports insider, what do you think is next for collegiate esports from here on in? Will we see further consolidation of the industry and large-scale competitions similar to collegiate sports, or are we looking at more fragmented but just as competitive communities?
A: I see a bit of both aspect happening: We're seeing more interest than ever from universities throughout North America in pursuing some form of support for their gaming communities. However, North America is far behind the EU and Asia when it comes to launching and providing long-term support for such programs.
Although universities may see the metrics and enticing potential of collegiate esports, limited data is available publicly to drive administrations forward. At the same time, the hesitation I've seen and heard from universities in the US is the unknown variables brought on by how the publishers of games manage the collegiate space.
While some publishers and developers of popular titles provide adequate or better support for their collegiate demographic, many others provide limited, or no direct support – combined with the uncertainty of both game lifespans and the relatively dynamic nature of change in esports compared with traditional sports, many university administrations are understandably hesitant in leaping into what they view as a high-risk, high-reward scenario. The bright point in recent years is the push by professional-level esports organizations towards supporting and educating universities via new collegiate chapter programs.
Q: When students join the esports club, what do they imagine and expect from it?
A: The student community is, for many of our students, a home away from home – a hub where they can find and make new friends that share similar passions. Competitive players expect a sense of direction towards improving their prowess in their respective games, while community players have a new avenue for de-stressing between classes and the concerns of becoming independent young adults.
Q: Do you see challenges to realizing the full potential of esports on a collegiate level and in general?
A: A big challenge ahead of collegiate esports is creating standardization and stability. I don't mean that every university and community college needs to have one-for-one identical programs, but the ocean of competitive leagues and organizations needs to become stabilized. We have organizations coming and going, rising and falling, on such a frequent occurrence in comparison to traditional sports that not all collegiate programs can keep up with the dynamic changes. It's difficult to pitch the investment into esports to all universities when many administrations are uncertain of the stability of the market.
Q: What takes precedence in recruitment, finding the right competitive talent, or bringing as many students in as possible?
A: For GCU, we want a bit of both: While we push towards maintaining healthy teams, we also wish to welcome the more casual community on equal levels of investment and focus. I view esports as a gateway towards bringing students together via one over-encompassing community, so our program is marketing equally towards both the competitive and the casual audience of prospective students.