Isabelle Schmidt

(Rock Hill, S.C.) — Last month, Winthrop University Athletic Director Ken Halpin announced a proposal to the school’s Board of Trustees Committee on Student Life and Athletics to add a varsity esports team.

Esports is competitive video gaming, which has grown in popularity in recent years with international tournaments and millions of viewers worldwide.

Earlier this fall Winthrop President Dan Mahony said in his State of the University Address that he wanted to add destination programs, academic or athletic, that would draw a new group of students to the school who might not otherwise look at Winthrop.

“Adding esports is a discussion happening precisely for the reason of fulfilling the president’s charge of creating new destination programs,” said Halpin.

Now is a good time for the university to jump into the booming esports industry, according to Halpin.

Matthew Hoshauer, secretary of the student run Competitive Gaming Club, said he believes forming an esports program would draw students to Winthrop.

“Esports is such a new thing and there are so many upcoming teenagers that are really invested and they’re competing. Other competitive gamers, when they are looking for colleges, usually lean towards a college just because they have grander esports programs,” said Hoshauer.

“Esports right now is gold. If they do decide to go through this process, they would bring a bigger cast of people to the school,” said Jahiym Staten, president of the gaming club.

The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), the governing body for esports, has an organized structure in place that allows schools and students to compete for a college national championship.

NACE was formed in 2016 and now presides more than 100 varsity esports programs at participating schools across the country, including Coker College, USC Sumter and USC Union in South Carolina.

Additionally, other schools in the Southeast, such as Georgia Southern and Georgia State universities, have introduced varsity esports programs.

“This ability to transfer from being a simple grass root organization to being something funded is incredible,” said Hoshauer.

“I think Winthrop is very needing and deserving of an esports program. We have the interest, the ability (and) we have the people that know what they are doing,” he said.

“It is highly possible that many of the (Winthrop student) club’s members will be eligible for this team,” said Halpin.

Matt Martin, associate athletic director for external operations, was a key player in providing research to determine if esports is feasible for Winthrop.

Martin said starting an esports program is likely a more attractive option for the university, when compared to other emerging sports such as disc golf or cycling.

“Starting an esports team has a lot of startup costs, but recurring costs aren’t that much moving forward,” said Martin.

He said esports are also attractive because the teams can be co-ed, allowing men and women to compete on the same team, and there is already a blueprint provided by NACE.

“A governing body is so important, in our opinion, (because) it decides how you crown champions and how you compete and it gives you not only that, but the rules and that gives a little bit of structure to it.”

It’s likely, Martin said, a large investment would be needed to provide a potential esports program with the latest equipment and required technology.

“We are looking at a few different options,” he said. “You look at some schools across the country that are really into esports, they have these beautiful facilities that they put a lot of resources into and we would like to get there, but right now we are looking at what can we do to get it off the ground.

“The nice thing, unlike basketball or a football, is it does not need to be a high viewership facility in terms of there being a stadium or something like that.”

Halpin’s proposal included a pledge by a donor to pay for the internet connection, specialty gaming chairs and computer consoles which would cost between $50,000 and $100,000.

Winthrop gamers are excited by the possibility of having a state-of-the-art facility. Currently, Winthrop’s gaming club members must provide their own equipment and they are forced to find whatever space is available for their practice and competitions.

“The costs hinder the ability for people that want to get into esports but don’t have a way to do that,” said Hoshauer. “I think having the equipment to allow us to introduce this concept to people would be incredible.”

However, some have questioned esports being categorized as an athletic program.

Martin said people who have given negative feedback typically don’t understand what esports is, so he is reaching out to them.

“There are people that don’t think of it as a traditional sport and may think of it as not truly a varsity sport, but again that is part of technology moving forward. That is what is exciting about it,” said Martin. “There are a ton of sports throughout history where you would have said ‘that is a dumb idea’ and now it’s a sport.”

Gamers at Winthrop say the mental strategy and fast pace of games make it a perfect fit as a varsity sport.

“Imagine playing chess; it’s a really thought driven sport, so now accelerate it at the point to where you can’t control the pace. Once the match starts you have to think 10 to 12 steps ahead of your component the entire time,” said Staten.

“Esports across the country has a very strong backing. I think if you look at the numbers of how successful it has been and compare it to some of the other major sporting events and the viewership, there is definitely interest in it and it’s only growing,” said Martin.

Staten said he thinks a varsity esports program could help provide other opportunities for students, which could be tied to majors that focus on game design, computer programing or coding.

“I feel like with the idea of it being a varsity sport is a smart move,” he said. “Esports is a lot more than a hobby, it becomes a life passion.”