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9 Things You Need to Know About Collegiate Esports, the Players, and the Games
Posted on Thursday, August 25, 2022
9 Things You Need to Know About Collegiate Esports, the Players, and the Games

Aug. 25, 2022 - Most integrators are intimately familiar with the technological solutions needed to create a quality esports facility. These venues, after all, lean heavily on systems that are just like those installed in a broad variety of commercial and university applications. But who's actually playing these games? Who's organizing tournaments? Who's coaching them? And what benefits (and challenges) do these games present to players? Here's some info on the end-users of esports tech.

Players tend to specialize in specific games.

"In more competitive programs like ours, you specialize in a specific game," says Dan Marino, esports director and the head coach of Ball State University's first varsity team. "It's similar to track and field, in a way. Esports is the umbrella, and then you have students that do different games or competitions within that umbrella."

Collegiate programs generally participate in team games.

"All of the games we compete in are team competitions," says Marino. Some games can be played by solo competitors, but collegiate programs will still maintain a team environment — again, much like a track and field squad. "You'll have other players that are also competing in that game that you can practice with or talk with, or even in a lot of cases, a coach," he adds.

"We compete in what I'd think are the most common," says Marino. "Overwatch, League of Legends, Rocket League, and Valorant are probably the top four. Then you have games like Counter-Strike, Rainbow 6, Call of Duty, Super Smash Bros, Fortnite, Apex — the list goes on."

Players are extremely diverse.

Todd Burris is the director and head coach of the esports program at Franklin College, a small school just south of Indianapolis. Burris has a background in both law enforcement and the insurance business and came out of retirement to run Franklin's program. "In the corporate world, we all talk about diversity, inclusion, and equity — and very rarely do you ever get to actually manage something like that," he says. "It just seems like a lot of talk. The program we developed at Franklin is the most diverse group of people I've ever seen in my entire life — and it just naturally came together that way."

Burris did note that there was one trait that was common across the team, however: His players were fairly introverted. Through his coaching — and the nature of team dynamics — that changed over a season. "When I had my banquet at the end of the year, these kids were unbelievable," he recalls. "They're no longer introverts; they're team players. Parents were sending me emails: They couldn't believe the difference in their children. They came home for the holidays and they're not hiding in the basement — they're engaged with the family, they're talkative, they're respectful."

The kind of team-building that Burris has seen can happen outside of organized gameplay. "We spoke with students who were unplugging their desktop computers from their dorm rooms, walking them across campus, and then wiring them up in a classroom to play," says Dr. George Claffey, CIO at Central Connecticut State University, which was the subject of a recent Crestron case study. "It inspired us to transform an old space into an esports center that would act as a catalyst for bringing students together."

The growing popularity of esports as a team activity is undeniable, regardless of skill level.

According to Marino, the first collegiate esports programs began to appear in 2014, but most of the current teams were founded only four or five years ago. "We have 55 players on our varsity team, but there are 800 people playing at the club level here at Ball State," he says. Rapid growth is evident even at small schools such as Franklin. "My roster went from the first year having five kids recruited by the school and 12 walk-ons — this year I have over 40 players at our top level," says Burris.

Most serious competitors are also young.

"Your prime in esports is much younger than your prime in traditional athletics," says Marino. The prime window for a player is roughly 18 to 22 years old, he says — a time when everything from eyesight to reflexes is typically at peak performance for a gamer. It's one reason that collegiate esports finds itself in somewhat of a competition with the professional leagues, as opposed to feeding those leagues in the manner of other traditional athletics programs; they're essentially trying to recruit the same players.

There's no governing body for esports at the collegiate level (yet), and levels aren't clearly defined.

"It's interesting because there's no D1, D2, or D3 in esports," says Marino. "If you knew the ins and outs of every program, their competitive strength, and funding, you could probably create a tiered structure, but there's no governing body saying who's what." Although team levels are amorphous, there are factors at play that delineate smaller programs from those with more star power — and technological resources.

As a result of the lack of NCAA oversight (which Burris believes will happen eventually), game developers tend to drive the organization of many tournaments. "Just to give you an idea, the RLCS, which was the Rocket League tournament, is run through the game developer. They put on the large championship events and run all the professional level competitions." Those competitions may also include a collegiate division, but there are tournaments specific to university play, such as the CECC, the Collegiate Esports Commissioner's Cup.

Esports can lay the groundwork for careers in related fields.

"I'm in the process right now of working on an internship with an organization that could possibly open up a career path for a virtual logistic operation — like operating a forklift VR," says Burris. "They have discovered that esports players make good employees for that." The games also offer terrific opportunities for budding sportscasters. "We have a broadcast production program specifically for eSports," says Marino. "Last year, we had 38 students in it. This year, I'm shooting for 50." Those students will handle everything from play-by-play and color announcing to the technical aspects of putting a broadcast together. Additionally, some students use their experience as players to launch careers in game development.

Esports programs have challenges that are surprisingly similar to traditional sports.

Burris is extremely focused on an "academics first" approach to his team. "I want my players to have a holistic approach to their college experience," he says. "I don't want them gaming 24/7. I want them out experiencing other things that college has to offer. I want them at study tables. I want them taking on other projects in different classes and giving them time to do that." Burris stresses to his players that they'll need skillsets beyond gaming to succeed after graduation.

Too much gameplay can also lead to burnout, says Marino. "Some people can get really fried from the amount teams might ask of them. It is kind of a tightrope where you have to be cognizant of people that might go a little bit too off the deep end in terms of playing the games in their chase to climb the ladder."