An international pastime with over a billion dollars in annual revenue, an audience of 380 million spectators and 588 major events across the world is impressive on its own. When considering that this sport’s athletes compete in front of computer monitors, hands gripped to keyboards and mice. It sounds like something out of an Orson Scott Card novel. However, throughout Asia, North America and Europe, esports have become a reality for millions of fans. College organizations across the U.S. have started to become sponsored as true athletic programs including a couple in Indiana. Ball State’s own Cardinal Esports is in the early stages of making their case known to the university.
Over two years ago, there was no presence of esports at Ball State, but soon Cardinal Esports began in the same way as any other club on campus. After the necessary structure was set in place (finding a faculty advisor, signing a contract and even setting up a bank account) members intrigued in the program started to actively participate. Now the organization is widely varied in offerings for players of Overwatch, League of Legends, Rainbow Six Siege, Rocket League and even Hearthstone.
Right now Cardinal Esports is looking to become more ingrained in the culture of Ball State and more specifically, Ball State students. Aside from the 100 to 150 already participating in the organization. Corbin Creedon, the club president, discussed becoming more familiar with students in an interview.
“There is a lot of kids here who play esports or play video games on a competitive level…and are unwilling to come out because they are not sure,” he said. “I’m trying to make that connection to people that video games can be a leisure activity and have the same amount of fun as someone who is competitively playing CS:GO or Rocket League.”
The possibility of university sponsorship is the key to a bright future for the program. Practice facilities, transportation and some simple infrastructure are all additions that could go a long way in improving Cardinal Esports' reputation on campus. Online tournaments are still successful but the ability to send real players to competitions without worry of entrance fee expenses or class schedule conflicts is crucial to professional growth. Public relations, secretaries and other administrative power would allow teams to focus more on practice rather than bureaucracy.
Currently members and executives within the group perform tasks that other athletic associations on campus do not have to worry about. This includes jumping through hoops when it comes to tournament prizes or even using the university logo for advertising and jerseys. The lengths to which students must go is impressive and requires hours of extra work on top of academic responsibilities.
“We give you designated study times. We help accommodate your class schedule for these games. We provide travel costs, and we help give you jerseys and pay for your equipment,” said Creedon about what other student athletes receive in compensation from Ball State.
Cardinal Esports faculty adviser Renee Clear does not receive much more than the players themselves. She receives no extra pay or time off for assisting in the teams endeavors.
“As a professor I am expected to put 15 to 20 percent of my time into doing service work. But my research is 50 percent. But this is the time-consuming stuff, this is the stuff I am passionate about working with, I just got to figure out how to combine those two things,” said Clear.
Ball State University is not the first college in Indiana to organize an esports program for students. Both Trine University in Angola and Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne represent the Hoosier state in the National Association of Colligate Esports (NACE) as well as Activision-Blizzard’s own championship league, Tespa.
The Trine Thunder team has gained a fair amount of recognition within the NACE, finishing third in the nation for Overwatch in their inaugural year. Early on, esports was just started as a conversation about what could be brought to campus to excite students. After being proposed to the school board and taking influence from other collegiate programs like Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania, it was fully embraced in the university’s athletic program. A good portion of that convincing came from head coach Alex Goplin.
“Kind of show them: We’re watching film. We’re coaching. We’re competing. There are penalties… we wear jerseys when we compete, so all those things and they are like, ‘You know it is very similar,’” said Goplin over a phone interview. He continued with, “Someone that isn’t in this realm comes and steps in this room during practice or during games, they notice it right away. The communication, the skill level, the hand eye coordination… they respect it right off the bat.”
The investment for gaining a legitimate esports presence went beyond the board room. Finances and equipment costs were incorporated into the budget for Trine’s $13.7 million MTI Center, which also houses the men’s and women’s basketball teams as well as the bowling team. The 1,200 square foot gaming lab was funded at a price of around $2000-$3000 per station with 30 machines in total. Ergonomic chairs, gaming tables, mice and keyboards were also factored in.
With the full backing of the university on campus, esports are treated just like any other athletic team. Trainers for minor injuries, academic eligibility registration and even I.T. networking support has all been supplied by the university. Trine has discovered the positive impact that esports has had on the student body, namely its ability to allow students who would never normally participate in sports to represent their school in a unique way.
Indiana Tech has evolved in a similar fashion to what Ball State could become, one to two years of club esports moved straight over to a varsity setup after the arrival of current head coach and manager Geoffrey Wright. To be fair, a good amount of the infrastructure was already planned out before Wright’s arrival. Allocation of space, recruited students and computer parts were all grounded inside the department of student life, which houses the esports program. That does not mean there was not more work to be done when it came to how the team represents themselves.
“We have been working a lot on essentially what kind of business do we want to run. We have been working on running team events, having more development for our students instead of just being focused on the video game,” said Wright in an interview.
The transition from club organization to traditional athletic organization has been generally accepted at Indiana Tech. Faculty have been supportive and everyone is very interested in esports. Even parents of recruited members have been giving good feedback and have accepted the legitimacy.
The Road Ahead
Accommodation of esports at Ball State can bring more prestige to the university that would be worth the monetary sacrifice. Cardinal Esports is prohibited against offering prize money at their tournaments because it would be considered gambling. However, Tespa offers prize money in the form of scholarship for their competitions and with varsity recognition from the university, Ball State’s Overwatch, Hearthstone and Rocket League team would finally be eligible.
When considering the cost of an esports program analogous to the athletic budget, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the present cost. According to USA Today, the 2016-2017 total athletic expenses for Ball State was over $27.4 million. Estimating an average of $2,500 per station for at least 30 stations, without a dedicated practice facility, networking or other staff for the team, the total cost would be $75,000. Compare that to the total athletic budget, and it factors out to only 0.27 percent.
It does not seem like that number alone will convince the university to adopt esports under the athletics umbrella. While Clear and other departments of the university have been reaching out to other schools in the M.A.C. conference, the discussion has not gone that far. The administration is in a very preliminary stage when it comes to asking where the esports wave is going, and there is no defined process.
While Cardinal Esports may not have the backing now, that will not change their outlook on what esports means to their community. The capacity for representation at Ball State and throughout the Muncie community is expansive. It is not just about giving casual players a base to grow their abilities. It is about people coming together around something they love and gathering support.
They want to strengthen their legitimacy by eventually recruiting players, show the potential careers esports connects to in telecommunications and prove that they are the most distinct group at Ball State that can bring in people from all walks of life.
“The one thing people don’t realize is…this is the most diverse student organization I have ever worked at. Ball State, one of their big strategic goals is about diversity,” said Clear. “You have black, you have white, you have Hispanic, you have male, you have female, you have freshmen, you have seniors. It’s the most diverse group and the most inclusive group I have ever worked with.”
Listen to the full interview with faculty adviser Renee Clear and club president Corbin Creedon here:
Images: Blake Chapman