University of Mary Washington students are used to going ballistic over an at-the-buzzer 3-pointer or a fast-as-lightning volleyball spike in a brightly illuminated Anderson Center. But how do offense and defense play out in a dimly lit room with video consoles – and mashing and peeling and speed-boosts?
Get ready, UMW. Esports is on the way, and it’s revolutionizing preconceived notions about collegiate athletics. The cyber sport joins Mary Washington’s 19 NCAA sponsored sports and two team sports, as a third team sport. And it’s open to everyone, regardless of physical prowess.
“There’s a real sense of community around esports … an inclusive nature about it,” said UMW Assistant Athletic Director Caitlin Moore, who played a critical role in the development of Mary Washington’s esports program, unveiled last month. “Esports is not going away,” she said. “It will only grow.”
Having expanded globally over the last decade, esports, short for “electronic sports,” involves teams competing against each other in video game tournaments both face-to-face and virtually. Statistics show that video gaming is a bigger business than ever, eclipsing movies and music combined, with revenue around $60 billion worldwide and burgeoning.
Freshman Christopher Goodwin is likely to be one of the first in line to try out for UMW’s competitive esports team. A founder of a “smash league” at his high school, Goodwin said he’s been gaming as long as he can remember. And the phenomenon has created cherished memories – especially of his dad, with whom he played. After his father’s death when Goodwin was 7, Pokémon HeartGold provided hours of comfort – and still does, he said.
“Gaming has introduced me to a lot of friends,” Goodwin added. Now with esports, students who have been playing in their residence hall rooms get to meet classmates who share their passion. “I’ve been surprised by the number of people coming out of the woodwork to express interest,” Moore said.
According to the Pew Research Center, 97 percent of American students between the ages of 13 and 17, the prime college-bound demographic, play some form of video game. While all are not esports players, a majority is engaged culturally.
“This opens up an entire new world,” said Melissa Yakabouski, dean of undergraduate admissions at UMW. “From the outside, Mary Washington may look very traditional with its brick and columns, but we are also forward-thinking and incredibly cutting edge.”
Both Moore and Yakabouski see esports as a valuable recruitment and retention tool. “It’s an opportunity for students to have an impactful learning experience outside the classroom,” Moore said. UMW also plans to host tournaments for high school players, and Yakabouski said she already has admitted students who have indicated an interest in esports.
Members of the Mary Washington squad will be referred to in the same way other team players are identified – as student athletes – said Director of Athletics Patrick Catullo. UMW is searching now for an esports director and hopes to have the position filled by July. A venue is being identified, games determined and equipment ordered.
For students like Goodwin, a dream is becoming a reality. Moore said, “It’s exciting to get in on a trend when it’s hot – when you get to paint what the future looks like.”