Esports is shaping up as a staying element of higher education in the United States and well across the world. The University of Kentucky is no exception, and if anything, the institution has made its intentions towards esports very clear.
With a dedicated varsity program* and a well-developed medium for nurturing esports talent, UK is proving an important part in the career success of individuals who want to get involved with the business of esports, whether as players or as a part of competitive video gaming's vast ecosystem.
Yet, the upcoming University of Kentucky Esports Invitational is a new level of engagement between esports colleges, with the Gen.G-backed initiative now reuniting nine universities to compete across three disciplines on March 12 through March 14.
Today with us we have UK CIO Heath Price who can tell us more about the event and the impact esports has had on the university and whether competitive video gaming in higher education is here to stay.
A Clarification on Varsity Programs by Heath
*It is interesting – we really don't have a “varsity” program as it is defined by groups like NACE and other top-notch collegiate Esports programs. Our teams are formed as a “Recognized Student Organization” and are referred to as the UK Esports Club.
So what is the difference between what we are doing and what a school that is focused on a varsity program is doing? I'm sure there are a lot more differences than I see, but I can say that our focus is on bringing the experiences around playing video games, creating content, and allowing for competitive gameplay experiences to the broader student population. We support the UK Esports Club, and they have a wonderful space on campus to practice, compete, etc. But we are also working hard to get more students familiar with the gaming resources available and encouraging participation from anyone that has an interest.
Further, our new UKFCU Esports Lounge (UKFCU stands for UK Federal Credit Union) is open to all UK students, faculty, staff, and the community. We are very hopeful that the space will become a destination for players of all ages that want to game, learn more about gaming, and/or just connect with friends and build great relationships.
Q: What has changed since you launched your dedicated esports program and why did you seek out Gen.G from the very start?
- We spent our first 12 months (late 2018 – fall 2019) researching and learning more about the esports landscape. After just a bit of research, it was clear that there was more to this than we recognized at the collegiate level – with hundreds of colleges and universities across the United States having implemented some level of committed esports student programming, classroom learning, and/or strong desire for competitive and casual gameplay.
- Early on in this learning process, we leaned heavily on one of our key campus partners – JMI Sports (UK's media rights holder for Athletic and Campus Marketing Rights) – to identify industry leaders in the esports space that the University can collaborate with to more aggressively achieve the goals laid out above.
- Paul Archey, JMI's Chief Commercial Officer, had a past working relationship with Chris Park at Major League Baseball. Chris left MLB in late 2018 to become Gen. G's CEO. So the timing was pretty amazing – one day we are meeting with JMI and talking about what [we] are learning about the esports space, and the next day they are coming back to us and saying “we've got a professional esports organization that we've got to meet immediately.”
From day 1 of meeting with their team, Gen.G has felt like the right partner. A few factors that have stood out to us about their organization and culture:
- Gen.G is the only major organization that owns and operates top teams in the world's leading esports markets — China, South Korea and the United States.
- Gen. G's core mission is to help fans and athletes use the power of gaming and esports to get ahead in and beyond the competition.
- It was clear to us that Gen.G can provide counsel, perspective, and thought leadership for UK based on its strong business relationships across the entire esports ecosystem — from leading game publishers to tournament organizers to league operators, in the U.S. and abroad.
And from day 1, Gen.G has lived up to their stated values, and quite honestly they have really exceeded them in my opinion. As an example, they launched the Gen10 scholarship in August of 2020.
They have committed $10,000 annually for 10 years to a UK student. The scholarship, completely funded by Gen.G and distributed through their Gen10 Foundation, will be used to support diverse students enrolled at UK who are interested in majoring in areas like gaming, entrepreneurship, journalism or content creation.
Q: How is the UK Esports Invitational going to change things for you and is it an ad-hoc event responding to the current pandemic or do you plan to have more similar events?
It's a really good question. We think about “what's next” every day.
From the beginning, we viewed the mission of “reaching community” as something that we would approach with various events. When the world changed for us in March 2020, we pivoted some of the ideas we had into virtual events that we could pull together and remove the pandemic as a barrier.
- Hoops at Home – Four-day NBA 2K20 tournament with 64 participants across brackets for current students, future students, alumni, and Big Blue Nation; we are hosting the 2nd annual Hoops at Home event from April 9-11 2021.
- Cats Smash Clash – Series of Super Smash Brothers tournaments focused on UK students and providing a summer engagement for incoming freshman to participate in prior to the semester.
- Give Health – we partnered with the UK Children's Hospital to raise money through a week of nightly streams. Generated around $20,000 in funds that went directly to the hospitals mission.
- Virtual Governor's Cup – since the 2020 football rivalry between UK and Louisville couldn't be played, we put on a virtual event pitting the rival schools in a few different Esports titles during the week. It was a fun time – Louisville won the inaugural championship.
- We continue to focus on working within the campus community to empower voices to create regular gaming content on the UK Twitch channel (https://www.twitch.tv/universityofky)
- Cornerstone Commentary – monthly stream where we bring on leaders around the gaming industry (including academic professionals that have diverse perspectives) to talk about the industry as a whole and how it is developing.
- Coffee and Consoles – A daily morning stream (8-10 am ET) of console games led by Media Arts and gaming topics faculty member Nathan Stevens
- We continue to look for students that are interested in streaming to jump in and use the channel to talk about their gaming interests.
Q: Do you see esports as a staying phenomenon in higher learning and do you think varsity programs are going to focus on training professional esports players more so than preparing students for a general career in the industry?
I definitely believe that competitive gaming is a staple that is going to remain in higher education for years to come. The gaming genre is so broad, and that breadth leads to interest from so many different people, that there is a great deal of future potential in having video games become a great portal for students into the campus community that they are entering.
From my perspective, I believe the “connectedness” of video games – most of which are now played online – means that finding the “best of the best” is going to happen outside of our campus walls. That doesn't mean that we won't end up having students that come to UK and already excel at a certain game, or that there won't be examples where students come into our campus and develop those skills to achieve a professional gaming career. But in our case, it does mean that a focus on creating professional players is not a top priority.
We have just opened our new Esports and video game space – known as the UKFCU Esports Lounge – inside The Cornerstone space located on our campus. We've got 50+ gaming PC's, team rooms, and a wonderful theater that will be great to host events when that is possible one day. This really points to our focus on building the community, providing an environment where casual and competitive gamers can co-exist and thrive, and opening our doors to the broader community through fun events, streams, and a new gaming space (the UKFCU Esports Lounge) that is now located on our campus.
Q: What would determine the success of the upcoming UK Esports Invitational and why did you pick the games you did, i.e. VALORANT, League of Legends and League?
I believe just doing it is a success. We are hopeful to have 11-12 SEC schools participate. That is hard to pull off – a lot of competing schedules, student responsibilities, and other priorities. Gen. G's Julien Benichou deserves a lot of credit for pulling together the Esports student leaders at each of the SEC schools and working with them to create a cool event.
The games were largely driven by feedback from the students. These are competitive games where most of the SEC schools we talked to were excited to compete. In my experience, there is no better way to kick off an event of this magnitude – in its first year – than by listening to the players. There is enthusiasm for these games will make the event competitive and provide an entertaining Twitch stream. And most importantly, we are very hopeful that each of the teams have a lot of fun.
Q: How do you manage to strike a balance between the inherent “fun” element esports invite and the seriousness of higher learning?
As a University, I believe this is a part of our DNA. First off, we listen to our students. This gaming genre is important to a lot of our students, and we believe that trend will continue in the coming years. Look no further than the fact that the KHSAA (Kentucky's High School Athletic Association) being one of the first groups in the country to host competitive Esports events for their members schools.
Academics are important, and they can certainly be serious for the students that are in pursuit and the faculty and instructors that are providing the teaching and direction. We really view much of what we are doing in Esports and the broader context of video games as a “portal” into our campus. No different than how Student Government or a service-oriented student organization.
The cool part about Esports and video games is that it connects so many people from different walks of life; people with different interests; find a reason to connect because of the games that they play and the joy that they get out of that. We want to lean into that more and more, and we want students to feel that connection to what we are doing in Esports and build a deeper comfort with the University so that they will pursue more of the offerings and services that the campus-like UK wants to deliver.
Q: What is going to be the biggest change in esports education in the next five years in your opinion?
I graduated with a degree in general business in 1999. I was passionate about working in sports business in some way/shape/form. At that time the university I attended had created a master's degree in Sports Administration, and I jumped right in and took another 4 semesters of academic work to give me an opportunity to learn more and identify the professional direction I wanted to pursue right out of the gate.
I absolutely see parallels between the business of sports and the future growth around the business of esports. The industry continues to be very young in the United States, but the professional opportunities will be across a wide range of areas. And it isn't just pro players or game developers. There will be jobs for accountants, AV specialists, engineers, health and wellness professionals, etc as the industry matures.
Below is a very modest graphic that we've used on campus when talking about the future of employment opportunities in the video game space.