Paul Capoccia has been appointed Marywood University's Esports Director close to two months ago and since then, he has been actively looking to address challenges and build a successful program for the university.
The challenges Capoccia outlines are the type of things any school should consider before venturing into esports and luckily for Marywood, as well as the people involved with the esports program, all of these difficulties have been anticipated, to the point where the team is working towards continually improving the esports program.
Covid has certainly had its own impact on running any type of athletic or, in this case, esports program, but Capoccia has always been a man with a plan. When he left his job, he had it all planned, and hedged for a year ahead.
Yet he knew that not seizing this opportunity would mean that he may never have another chance like that. He is confident about the success of college esports, but he also acknowledges the format's unpredictability.
Capoccia knows what he wants though and the future of Marywood University's esports program is sustainable growth over the next three to five years, he says. He predicts that the university can become a force to reckon with in the Northeast and this is certainly what he will work towards.
The cogwheels of academia will often have to be oiled along the way and esports recruitment will prove another hard nut to crack but overall, Capoccia is adamant in his determination to see this through.
Q: Hey Paul, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. One thing that we feel we should put the record straight on is the fact that Marywood University was actually never reluctant about an esports program. Can you give us your take on the story?
A: From Marywood’s perspective, and from my athletic director Pat Murphy’s perspective, we never wanted to be the last ones to the party. Our president, Sister Mary Persico, was very forward thinking about esports from the moment she stepped onto campus. She met with Pat who shared similar sentiments – they didn’t know entirely where to start or how to build the program, but they understood esports is the future of any collegiate institution’s extracurricular and athletic activities.
So they started to build out their network to learn more, I was part of the initial charge but certainly not the only push. I think it was never reluctance or skepticism so much as proper due diligence. They understood we had already missed the window to be first in, we didn’t want to be last in, and so we got in at exactly the timetable they wanted ultimately, far more educated and doing it right the first time.
Q: What was the main challenge(s) in seeing the program through in those first stages?
A: This is my sixth week now, and the main challenge for me starting is absolutely recruiting. The planning and construction of the facility I don’t consider a “challenge” in that we have so many teams that are doing wonderful work alongside me, so that’s simply part of the launch. The recruiting piece, though, that’s a serious challenge. And that challenge isn’t unique to me or esports – we as athletic coaches and directors are trying to recruit students late in a COVID year full of uncertainty (to use the cliché). It’s hard, and it’s a doubly hard choice for incoming students.
The high school landscape is fractured to put it lightly, and there aren’t any sort of established pipelines yet in this space like you would find in more traditional sports spaces. I can’t go and watch a local basketball game and call up the head coach that’s been in that high school for thirty years that I probably already know – we don’t have that. So it’s going to take time, it’s a challenge that’s absolutely surmountable, but it’s the main challenge nonetheless.
Q: You did commit a fair bit, walking out on a day job to pursue your dreams. Not many people would have had the same courage. How did you bring yourself to take the risk or were you already set that you want to work as an esports director or as part of the collegiate esports community?
A: It’s funny, to me it was never a courageous move. It was a necessity. I loved everything about my old job except the work, truly. I loved the place, the people, my manager was the best in the world. I told her that then, and I stand by it. But I needed to be somewhere where I felt satisfied and fulfilled. It was a planned move, you know? I saved up, I planned as if I wouldn’t make a dime for a year, and I put in my notice.
I think what brought me to take the risk was knowing if I didn’t do it then, these jobs wouldn’t magically open up again. If other people stepped up first and got these seats, they might be keeping them warm for five, ten, twenty years – I wouldn’t have first pick. I always wanted this specific job, I wanted to be the esports director here at Marywood, my alma mater, but I knew ultimately I did want to be in the collegiate space. I don’t think there’s a greater place in the world than a college campus: it’s full of knowledge and life and energy. It’s full of dreams and goals before they’re tampered by this thing we keep calling “the real world.” I’m fortunate and grateful it all worked out.
Q: Can you walk us through the current state of college esports and what you see as the community's strengths and weaknesses, not exclusively linked to Marywood University, but the region as a whole?
A: I think collegiate esports is in a really good place, honestly. Immense room to grow, but the foundation is finally, finally solidifying. We have conference that care a great deal, we have “veteran” schools now who can help welcome saplings like us, and we have dedicated athletes joining colleges across the nation. I think one of the major weaknesses to this point is similar to the high school scene: it’s still so fractured. We don’t have dedicated recruitment pipelines, we’re still communicating with schools nationwide because most regions only have a couple of schools or a fraction of their local schools participating, the Northeast included in that, and I think we don’t quite know where this is all going.
Is the NCAA going to step in in 5-10 years? I think so. So whatever we do now might entirely change in a few years. I think we’ve come a long way in a short period of time, but I think to make the vault to filling arenas in the collegiate space, maybe ultimately we do look to an NCAA or to these conferences helping establish more regional play vs just nationwide competitions once we have the amount of schools to support that.
Q: Do you manage to navigate the different aspects of esports in college education? There is the learning process that is more akin to any other academic study and then there is the competitive video gaming aspect of the program. Are they both equally important?
A: I think this really depends on the institution. For us, our esports program right now is exclusively the competitive gaming aspect under Athletics, but ultimately I think we’d love to have a curricular integration too. I think to me what’s most important is how we’re setting our student up for the future; so whether we had a major/degree in esports or we never develop curricular integrations and only offer esports as a sport, what are we doing for our student’s future? As higher ed, that is our goal: preparing them for the world.
Q: Is it difficult to balance between these and stay on top of changes in each unique vertical?
A: I’ve gotten to work on curriculum for another local college, and I think it’s difficult to balance because of the amount of people that have to be involved. The “sports” side of esports is coaches, players, managers, and all of that. When you begin to introduce curricular integrations, it’s a massive education process on the administration side. All of a sudden, you’re introducing professors, deans, chairs of departments that have never seen esports before, and you somehow have to communicate all of this has a place in academia.
Most are receptive, but balancing what their needs, desires, and thoughts are with the sports side to ultimately form an educational avenue is difficult. Similar to the challenges of recruiting, it’s certainly not insurmountable, but it can be difficult trying to coordinate parties across all walks of life there.
Q: What is your plan for Marywood University's esports program? Do you see room for sustainable future growth?
A: 1000%. I think even if this COVID year sets back our recruiting a little bit we’re more than poised to grow through the next 3-5 years especially. My plan for us is to make us a force in the Northeast. It’s going to take that full 3-5 years, but we’ll get there. I want to look to curricular integrations both with an esports concentration hopefully but also with integrating the art and communications students on campus into the fold.
Esports is so uniquely interdisciplinary by nature of its digital distribution that it’s so easy to integrate; how we leverage that creatively, “harness human creativity” as a professor of mine used to say, will be my measuring stick for success. To give it in three points: 1) create a formidable, competitive program in the Northeast, 2) be a destination for esports and esports integrations locally and regionally, and 3) build and establish an esports curriculum.
Q: What do you say to those people still skeptical in the future of esports in education and college esports?
A: What I would say would be: What else are you missing? If someone at this stage of the game is still skeptical about its legitimacy in both spaces, it’s clear esports isn’t the issue or the point of skepticism, it’s innovation. It’s technology. And they’ve likely missed a lot of other boats already, and they will continue to. I can understand apprehension: it’s an increasingly crowded, new, wild west of a space in both areas, but failing to embrace change, innovation, and the student of tomorrow is failing to embrace what is supposed to make higher education what it is.
We are supposed to be the ones preparing our students for tomorrow, embracing new waves of creativity, establishing foundations for future generations, and too often I think higher education overthinks itself. I think if we take a page out of our students’ studies and remember what we’re teaching, we’d be far more successfully nationally and entirely in the space. I’m fortunate enough to be on a campus that has unilaterally embraced esports. Any moment of apprehension has been equally met with an openness and eagerness to learn and understand in an effort to fully embrace esports, and I’m very, very blessed for that. I hope more spaces can be like the one I get to work in.