Starting in the fall of 2019, the University of Michigan Department of Recreational Sports will offer a competitive e-sports program for students interested in competitive video gaming.
E-sports are multiplayer competitive video games that are played in a team format. According to CNN, e-sports is a billion dollar industry with millions of fans who tune in to watch the streamed gaming.
The Recreational Sports Department is incorporating e-sports into their program to provide professional development, resources and a community for students seeking to play e-sports on a University club team.
Cybbi Barton, program manager of club sports and e-sports for the Recreational Sports Department, said the department has decided to create an e-sports team due to student demand.
“E-sports have been around for a very, very long time, and I think with our department and, ‘Why now?’ is just the growing popularity of e-sports,” Barton said. “We see it on ESPN, and all over the news and it’s just a growing popularity among students.”
Mike Widen, the director of Recreational Sports, said in an email statement the desire for teams to compete and foster a large e-sports community on campus is growing. This new program will provide e-sports clubs with the same opportunity to develop communities as club-sports teams experience.
“We already have a number of other programs that are in place to help students build connections with each other and with the institution, and Esports will do the same for the students who are playing these games,” Widen wrote. “It was because of those opportunities for connections and the interest of the students that led us to develop this program. The students have shared a desire to compete with other University programs and represent the U-M. An Esports program in Recreational Sports will allow that to happen in the same way it does in our Club Sports program.”
Arbor Esports, the student organization of approximately 250 students, currently meets in the Ross School of Business and each player is required to bring their own computer equipment to participate. Arbor Esports President Alexander Downs, Business sophomore, said the organization gives students a community to game together.
“People who don’t typically play traditional sports and are just more gamers and go to class, they’ll have something to do on campus other than just go to class and they can come to our events,” Downs said.
Barton said she hopes the new Recreational Sports program will be able to provide students with a space to play. According to the University press release, creating that space and obtaining proper equipment is dependent on private and corporate donations and corporate sponsorships.
“Right now, the group that we are working with a lot, the student group, they are operating just by reserving rooms on campus where they gather and compete, but we are really looking forward to the help from donors to have a space built specifically for our e-sports program,” Barton said. “Right now, there’s not a space dedicated to them. We hope that the sponsorship and really getting the word out about this e-sports program, that we’ll get some help from donors to create a space for them.”
Downs said potential spaces for e-sports on campus would be extremely beneficial for the membership.
“They are working on a space, so it's going to give us professional space where we can actually hang out or in the case of a professional club team they’ll be able to practice and stuff like that,” Downs said. “Right now, we just check out rooms in Ross and use the classrooms in there. So that will be a big benefit.”
Barton said the professional development and staff support offered through the club team will provide further learning opportunities for students involved. While e-sports will be student-led, the Recreational Sports Department will hire a student employee to be a coordinator and have officers serve as points of contact for travel and sponsorships, similar to the resources other club sports teams have access to.
Downs said the recreational e-sports program legitimizes the sport of gaming and the work Arbor Esports has done in the past.
“For us, it legitimizes things a little bit,” Downs said. “So the work that the students that came before me and the students that are here now that are graduating soon that they've been doing this whole time, it kind of legitimizes what they’ve done. It shows they haven't been wasting their time, basically.”
While the Recreational Sports Department typically appeals to student athletes who play traditional sports, Barton said the e-sports program tailored for video-gamers will hopefully increase the amount of students affiliated with the department.
“We, with this program, are going to reach a population of students who typically don’t involve themselves with our programs or within our department,” Barton said. “It's including a population of students who we typically don't see, if that means with e-sports or simply getting them walking in our facilities and potentially seeing a different program that they may be interested in, the inclusion piece is really big for us on this.”
E-sports teams compete against other university teams and institutions. According to Downs, The Big Ten Network holds an annual competition. One of the major advantages of e-sports becoming an official University of Michigan club team, according to Barton and Downs, is the ability to compete and operate under the University of Michigan name.
“The students are going to benefit from the professional development that we will be able to provide along with being able to represent the University of Michigan,” Barton said. “Getting to use the Block ‘M’ is a big piece too, and to grow connections with corporations that want to affiliate with this University and be a part of this.”
Downs said the current student organization does not have the University name tied to them, which will change for students who choose to participate in the club sport team.
“We don’t have the Block ‘M’ behind us,” Downs said. “So we are Arbor Esports, instead of University of Michigan, and so if you're on the club sports team, you’ll have that University of Michigan tag on you other than just saying we are students from the University of Michigan.”
Widen said that the growth of e-sports within the Recreational Sports program is not alone. Other organizations and sports on campus are increasing, which will expand the network of competition on the University’s campus.
“In the same way Esports is being developed in Recreational Sports at U-M, we are seeing other campus recreation programs beginning to develop their own Esports programs as well,” Widen wrote. “This will create additional opportunities for competition between programs at competing institutions.”