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Published: April 26, 2021

Written by: web developer


Joey Gawrysiak is the director of esports at Shenandoah University and in his conversation with us he helped us find out a lot about the nature of collegiate esports. In his own words, esports is different at each school in the United States and every school is trying to figure esports on their own terms.

This is good, though argues Joey, as there is obviously room for everyone. On the one hand you have the top-competitive schools which are producing some of the most talented esports players. Then again, Shenandoah has ventured into the rather intriguing side of content creation for social media through dedicated broadcasts that students are taught to produce.

That is an exciting skill set to have as many traditional companies are right now exploring the esports space to learn how to engage with young audiences the same way esports does.

Ultimately, though, it’s about providing esports students with an opportunity to enjoy their passion for esports while garnering access to high-quality education and that is what Shenandoah University stands for.

Q: Joey, with your 3+ years of experience as director of esports at Shenandoah University, you are in a unique position to help us understand how esports has changed over the years on a collegiate level. Could we talk about this first? What is new at the collegiate level? Where is everyone headed?

A: The collegiate scene for esports has obviously grown and continues to grow: the number of games that are played, the number of schools that play, but also the numbers that are more formalized, and what we call the varsity level of competition, where programs are school supported. They have a dedicated coach or/and a director, and they have jerseys. They compete against other schools in these official tournaments. 

Everything continues to just grow. The prize pools grow, which is always great because prize pools at the collegiate level usually mean scholarships – not always but usually. And any time we can provide scholarships to students for doing what they love at a high level, it’s a win-win because then the student gets to use some of that money to pay for their education which can be very expensive these days. 

Q: You’ve touched on something very interesting, mentioning varsity programs. Could you elaborate for our readers who may not be familiar with what varsity-level esports are. Does this mean they are supported by the school/college and do not run as just a club? 

A: That’s it. The way we define varsity versus club, at least at a lot of the organizations that we have here in the U.S., at the collegiate level, varsity is basically university-supported. That means that funding for tournaments, travel, coaching, dedicated spaces on campus, the equipment is all or partially paid for by the university.

So the money is fronted by the university to support that team to compete, and that is just the competitive side. I am not talking about the academic side of things and all that yet – we will talk about it a little bit later. 

“And any time we can provide scholarships to students for doing what they love at a high level, it’s a win-win.”

Club teams are student-supported. So, the students are in charge of raising money, finding their own competitions, practicing on the run, really supporting themselves through fundraising, or if the university has student engagement money that they want to allocate to different clubs, students can apply for funding that way. 

But, students have to do it completely by themselves. That’s the way we look at it. The club is – I wouldn’t say not as committed because a lot of club teams are extremely committed and extremely talented, but they are not supported by the university at the level varsity teams are.

Q: Do you reckon that there is a real chance for esports players who come to Shenandoah University to make it as professional players after or during graduation? 

A: As far as going pro is concerned, we set our expectations with our students. They know the expectations and chances of being a professional gamer, and they are extremely low – there is no doubt. It’s just like going pro in basketball or football. The percentages are extremely low.

What the program provides students, though, is an opportunity to do what they love whilst still playing at a high level. Maybe they can try and see if they can make it like a pro, at least on a low level, but there is a difference between being a professional gamer and making a career out of being a professional gamer.

Because having a career out of it means you have been doing it for a long time, and you have enough money to be sustainable for a longer period of time. When it’s not a career, it’s about a gamer having tried and now doing something else. And so, the incentive for students to go to university to play games, and competitive, is probably there but really only for those top one percent schools that play really competitively.

“It’s because they want to get an education, they want to learn about the industry, and they want to do what they love while they are studying whatever it is – whether they are studying business, chemistry, or criminal justice.”

Schools like Harrisburg’s University, like Maryville, or Northwood. Those are some of the top competitive schools that we have in the U.S., and these are schools that offer full-ride scholarships. They are competing on these teams for a chance to win more prize money, but they are really the top one percent of all the high-level gamers.

A school like Shenandoah and most other schools out there – the students coming are not coming because they want to be professional gamers. It’s because they want to get an education, they want to learn about the industry, and they want to do what they love while they are studying whatever it is – whether they are studying business, chemistry, or criminal justice.

The incentive there goes well beyond being a competitive gamer. It goes to be a part of a community, fueling that passion for doing what they love and playing at a higher level, maybe win some prize money, but they know they are not going to be rich because we have set those expectations.

We just provide students with the opportunity to do what they love in a setting that is healthy and also provides them an education. 

Q: What are the other benefits that an esports program at Shenandoah brings? How do these skills translate into jobs afterward?

A: We have an esports major as well as some certificates. We have them on the major and undergrad level as well as on an MBA level. We have really covered the academic side of esports, and we combine this with our competitive side and add in the professional development, and this all goes to what jobs are available because we want to prepare our students for careers inside of esports that are beyond gaming.

That has to do with working in the ecosystem, from running events to doing sponsorships, registration, revenue generation, marketing, promotions. That’s all great – that’s all part of the business side of esports. A lot of other jobs in the industry right now are around the content creation and the broadcast production side of esports.

Especially in this COVID world that we have, content creation is an important skill set because that’s how esports consumed by 99.9% of esports fans or enthusiasts is through social media, online streaming media through Twitch or YouTube, or through some other platform out there.

It’s important to understand how that side of the industry works and how to put a successful broadcast. That’s one of the things that we think is important. Right now, I am in the casting room. Beside me is the production studio where we do all our broadcast producers, replay observers, and so on. They all sit in there during a broadcast so that our students have that skill set by the time they graduate. 

“Especially in this COVID world that we have, content creation is an important skill set because that’s how esports consumed by 99.9% of esports fans or enthusiasts is through social media.”

That’s where they are getting job offers and internship opportunities right now. There are a lot of jobs there, but the beauty is that it’s not just jobs in esports. Other industries need these skill sets that students have. 

We are working with a couple of professional sports organizations to bring students from our school over to work with them so they can understand how to promote themselves on Twitch to this younger viewing audience because they don’t know how to engage on Twitch and YouTube the way that esports does. 

That’s what esports does, but traditional sports haven’t done the same thing. They have been on cable television, newspapers, magazines, ESPN. They haven’t done this whole streaming thing where their audiences engage instantly. 

So, they are trying to understand that space a little bit better. The jobs on the business side, there is a lot, but I think there are more on the broadcast/community end. A lot in the game design still, which is not really esports necessarily, but you know, it’s related. The athletic training and medical side are expected to grow quickly in the next two to five years as new research comes out.

I think the coaching side is getting a lot bigger as well, coaching high school, collegiate and professional esports. That’s where a lot of the job offers are. 

Q: That is excellent. Thank you for sharing this. It’s inspiring to find out how many ways there are for esports to translate into real-world skills. Now, the next question is one that you probably anticipate. Has the pandemic affected esports, and to what extent?

A: Yeah, I mean the pandemic affects everything at every level. It didn’t impact esports the way it may have traditional sports, like soccer or basketball or baseball, but it still had an impact. The in-person events are a good example. The Overwatch League was just getting to their home stands where each host city was preparing to host a game. 

So, for example, we have been able to work out some events with the Washington Justice here in D.C., we have an official partner with them as a university to get internships to work on events, to collaborate on events and after their homestand with our students working there as volunteers, everything shut down. 

We couldn’t get our students that same experience and networking as we had planned because everything moved online. So that’s the kind of negative way the pandemic affected things. After two weeks, we started having competitions again, all online, which was fine because it kept students engaged, but the silver lining was that esports was able to grow in some ways because everything had to move online.

I think the broadcast production and the online streaming really were expanded and moved up a lot quicker than they would have without the pandemic. Now, obviously, [the pandemic] is a bad thing. 

People had to get more technologically advanced and understand how to consumer online and how to produce online. People were really able to pay more attention. Twitch was able to grow and launch a dedicated esports section. 

I think the broadcast production and the online streaming really were expanded and moved up a lot quicker than they would have without the pandemic. Now, obviously, [the pandemic] is a bad thing. 

The pandemic is horrible. We got to get through this and be safe, but we can take some positives away in that esports was able to expand, and we as a program at Shenandoah made a big emphasis on putting more content out there, on broadcasting more matches, because we couldn’t have people in the community to come to our arena anymore. 

We decided to increase our online content, behind-the-scenes content, “being in the life of” type of content, producing as many of our matches as we could with the full broadcasts, replays, and everything going on.

Q: Do you see college esports in North America as concentrated in specific governing bodies, such as the NCAA for collegiate sports, or is it fragmented?

A: It’s so fragmented still. Esports is trying to figure its way out on a collegiate level. It’s just going to take time for it to evolve figure out what the best system is, what the best structure in governance might be. There are some major players in the space – Play Versus, NACE, EGF, ECAC. There are so many different governing bodies if you will. I know they are not governing bodies as such, but let’s call them that.

We are just helping them find the opportunity to be successful in getting an education through gaming. 

They govern esports and put on events for college students. There are so many of them that operate really differently from each other. End of the day, the best thing we can do is offer our students a positive experience, both competing and other professional development experiences. 

That’s what we have to do. Space is still very fragmented. I think it’s getting better; it just takes time. NCAA is 120 years old, whatever it is at this point. NACE, which is one of the older ones, is four years old. Obviously, there is a long way to go before esports gets where the NCAA is for traditional sports, but we are figuring it out. There are going to be bumps on the road, but we are going to get there. 

There are pros and cons. At the end of the day, we got to make sure that all students, not just students at Shenandoah, are having a high-quality collegiate esports experience that is preparing them for that next step to be successful.

We are just helping them find the opportunity to be successful in getting an education through gaming. 

Q: How is Shenandoah different, and have you had success recruiting so far?

A: I think the students who are coming to Shenandoah can see how we are different in how we do esports differently by combining the robust academic programs – the most academic programs in any school in the world, and I say that confidently because I’ve done a research project on that and I have done a project on all esports programs around the world that are beyond one class. 

Shenandoah has seven different offerings right now, where most schools have a few. That has really attracted a lot of students who are interested in studying and understanding esports from a sort of an academic perspective. The professional development that we have with the Washington Justice is definitely an incentive.

We are getting students that real-world experience, but also hands-on in our arena – the broadcast desk, the production room, running events – it’s a spectator arena with a stage, enough room for maybe 80 spectators, which is small, I get it, but it still mimics larger venues. 

I think students are attracted to us not only because of the online nature of what we do but because of the different things that we are doing to prepare them in a way that no other school is doing it right now. That’s what’s attractive to students. That’s what we are trying to do – to prepare them to be successful when they graduate, whether it’s working in esports or in areas outside of esports. They can learn skills through gaming and esports – adaptability, sportsmanship, and so on.

“We are getting students that real-world experience, but also hands-on in our arena – the broadcast desk, the production room, running events […]”

Skills that have been learned through traditional sports, people are now learning through esports and gaming. We are just reaching our students where they are, fueling that passion, and providing a path to high-quality education through esports and gaming in a lot of different ways. 

There is a school for every student out there. It’s not always going to be Shenandoah, and it shouldn’t be because some students may be more interested in game design. We don’t do game design on a high level. Some schools have much better competitive teams than we do. Every school is going to be different, and academic programs are going to be different. 

Yes, I think we are doing things on a high level, but I think there is a long way to go so we get to where we want to be and finding those best practices because space is moving so quickly, and we are all trying to figure it out. 

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