Christopher Adams

(Rock Hill, S.C.) — Winthrop University will become the third NCAA Division I institution in the country, later this year, to host a varsity esports program within the school’s athletic department.

The university announced last month it will launch the program in fall 2019, after crafting a plan that was proposed to the school’s Board of Trustees on Student Life and Athletics three months ago.

Currently, only Marquette University and Wagner College have Division I esports programs and there are four other gaming programs in South Carolina at Coker College, Limestone College, USC Sumter and USC Union.

Ken Halpin, Winthrop athletic director and vice president for intercollegiate athletics, said launching the program has brought excitement for those involved in the decision.

“I think part of the excitement is that it is innovative and I would imagine part of the excitement is that there isn’t a lot of negative feedback surrounding it,” said Halpin.

“There are very few who just think it’s a horrible idea and most of the time when people don’t like the idea, their basis for being critical of it, is because they think video games are nerdy or socially irresponsible.”

Halpin said there should be little concern about esports possibly taking away money from other programs within the university, because the school doesn’t plan to offer full scholarships to students in the program.

“Part of the reason is because, from a university standpoint, we have been working to make sure that we are fiscally efficient,” he said.

“There will be scholarships for these sports athletes, but none of them will be more than a couple thousand dollars. We are trying to be sensitive to the greater scholarship needs on campus,” said Halpin.

“I want to reiterate, we are not reassigning scholarships from any program on campus. Any scholarship money will be derived from money directly from the tuition revenue from the students that we attract.”

Matthew Howard, member of the student-run Competitive Gaming Club on campus, said he was surprised leadership at Winthrop had an interest in esports.

“I was just shocked that it was a thing,” said Howard. “With fighting games in general, we have kind of a grassroots thing, and then suddenly we’re getting support on top is surreal.”

If the opportunity to become a member of the esports team arrives, Howard said he would take it.

Winthrop has begun their search for a head coach to lead the program and get the recruiting process started.

Halpin said the recruiting for the esports program will mirror what the school does with other athletic programs.

“I think that it will have some parallels with our sport coaches,” he said. “The NCAA is the regulatory governing body for our athletic sports, but there is no real regulatory governing body (for esports), just a few that compete against each other in esports.”

Halpin said there are currently plans to house the esports team in the basement of the Dacus Library, because the space can allow 24-hour access.

“If the program grows, there may be a need to identify other space, but this was a space that we identified in order to get it launched in the fall,” he said.

Additionally, the esports team will be the first inclusive program on campus, which will allow men, women and individuals with disabilities to compete together.

Howard said it’s inspiring to witness the inclusiveness within the gaming club and the new esports program.

“I love the feeling that no matter who you are or what your circumstances are, you can just come by and pick up a controller and play with us,” said Howard. “It’s really a beautiful thing.”