While collegiate sports has seen fan-bases that rival that of some of their respective professional leagues, collegiate esports, thus far, has not been able to gather as much fervor. Collegiate esports have seen an insane growth in recent years, with practically every major school in America and Canada clamoring to form some kind of a team. Fans of the scene and esports in general are hopeful the trend will continue to grow. I sat down with head coach of one of the newest esports programs, Josh Knutson of the University of Jamestown. We discussed the program, in its first year at the university, his hopes for the scene and some of the trials and tribulations of collegiate esports.
The program now
The first order of business is always working out the details. Currently, Jamestown fields teams/players in Overwatch, League of Legends, Hearthstone and CS:GO. The usual suspects for any collegiate esport program. However, Knutson also hopes to expand into Heroes of the Storm if possible. “Its an easy add, and Blizzard as a company has been really awesome with working with our association on the corporate level.”
When deciding on which esports to try to enter first, Knutson said they looked first and foremost at what other teams were competing in within their association, NACE (National Association of Collegiate Esports). A focus on hitting the ground running with the program fueled this, as they wanted to get into a regular season from day one, with a good number of fellow colleges involved.
With the physical equipment bought, and an established presence now, Knutson is hopeful for the program’s expansion. Bringing on incoming freshmen to join is easier when you can show them it’s already happening, rather than based on promises. Expanding into other games, too, is an easy step, as with esports it just requires an installation on a computer to play. No need for new stadiums and turfs mean collegiate esports programs can be flexible and more daring with their expansions, Knutson explained.
The program’s future
When I asked about goals for the program, Knutson gave the tried and true hope for his team: “From a coaching standpoint…. I want to put a national championship trophy on my shelf.” Starting off a new program though, Knutson is aware of the challenges they’ll face on that quest. ‘Moving Forward’, is the motto for him and the team. “Every day take practice seriously, take our games seriously, move forward and keep getting better from a skill level and from a player development status.”
More concretely, Knutson discussed hopes for growing the program itself, hoping to (roughly) double the size of the roster from the current 16-30 next year. With a bigger roster comes the usual need for more facility space and more equipment. He highlighted, too, that this year was mostly focused on laying the foundation for success with the program. In the years to come, it’ll be about growing bigger and stronger, along with their chosen league in NACE. “We’re in a really good spot to be in the forefront of that big wave that is coming for esports.”
Alex Huff, one of the Overwatch players for the team, added to the discussion too, from a player’s perspective. Alex notes that two of his fellow Overwatch players are prior friends, so synergy with them was never an issue. However, noting the increase of players that will most likely exist next year, he mentioned his excitement of mixing up that dynamic and learning from his fellow teammates. “It’s going to definitely be able to facilitate growth and to grow the whole program itself. We’re going to have some people who are going to come in who may have more knowledge and teach those who may not have as much knowledge.”
NACE and a shake up in collegiate esports
I’ll admit, I’m relatively familiar with most of the popular collegiate esports leagues. TeSPA, Collegiate Starladder League, etc. are names I’m aware of. NACE was not one. I asked Knutson why he and the program chose to go with NACE. While being less of a household name as the others, Knutson highlighted how their mission and his program aligned: “To legitimize collegiate esports as a respected athletic activity on college campus’. Really push it to the same level as football, basketball and some of the other traditional sports.”
Knutson discussed NACE’s formation frankly, stating that he thinks part of the reason NACE was formed was out of frustration with the other leagues. From league structure to technical help, NACE is attempting to set itself up as something different than the others. Through corporate partnerships with Blizzard, Twitch and Battlefly, to a commitment to ‘doing it right’ from the beginning, Knutson believes NACE has set itself up as a leader in the scene.
Citing a few reasons for this, too, Knutson pointed to the similar level of dedication and regulation that exists already in collegiate sports as one of the reasons. Setting up a league with a similar structure to the NCAA, say, or some other established form of competitive league, was something attractive about NACE for Knutson. “We really bought into that idea of ‘if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this the right way.’ We want to legitimize it right away, and have it as respected as any other program is on our campus. We wanted our student athletes to be in the same vein as the football player or the basketball player.”
Knutson deeply identified with this notion of putting newly minted esports programs on the same level as the traditional programs offered by Jamestown. His players are held to the same requirements as their fellow athletes at the school. From attending the All Athletes meetings to community service requirements in their community, his players check all the same boxes as the football and basketball players. “I think that our administration and our coaching staff really brought in that idea of let’s legitimize this and do it the right way.”
This is part 1/2 for an interview with the University of Jamestown’s esports program.
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Featured Image courtesy of University of Jamestown Athletics.