College-level video gaming: Murray State College explores esports team, competitive gaming against other collegiate teams

Michael Smith
In this Aug. 29, 2019 photo, an esport player smiles during the qualifying rounds for the first Philippine esport team in metropolitan Manila, Philippines. Murray State College is looking to create an esport club to compete against other colleges.

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.”

For a modern video game player, seeing those sentences written in green text on a black background would not be a very exciting start to a video game. For some of the first video game players, however, the opening lines of “Colossal Cave Adventure” were the beginning of an elaborate video game developed for mainframe computers in the 1970s.

That is how Dr. Aaron Elmer first cut his teeth in the world of video games. Now he is the esports coordinator for Murray State College and is helping develop a program so the Aggies can join the growing world of collegiate esports. Between a career as a financial aid director on a college campus and a family that includes a teenager, Elmer has accepted the fact that technology is now an integral part of society.

“We have a tendency to jump first and look for the parachute second, and we’ve totally done this with computers and technology,” Elmer said. “If you’re a skeptic of the esports themselves, take a step back and look at it just from a digital-environment perspective. This is where we are, this is where we exist.”

The esports movement at Murray State College is still in its infancy. Elmer says the first students, about 10 or so, have expressed interest in either a casual gaming club or competitive gaming team. A location on campus was recently chosen to house a miniature esports stadium, and Elmer expects that to take shape this spring and summer.

Reaction to an esports program at Murray State College has been broadly mixed, according to Elmer. While some people have shown an expected skepticism, many others have wondered why it is only forming now. “When you start talking about the business, the industry, the degree programs, the fact that student engagement is the single most important part of getting a student to graduate, most people can see ‘oh, I see why you’re doing this’,” he said.

In a December statement to announce the developing program, Murray State College noted the 150 million worldwide esport participants and nearly 200 million esport views. “We have realized how monumental the wave of eSports (sic) has become and want to prepare students and give them the opportunity to compete and be employed in this emerging arena,” said MSC President Joy McDaniel.

According to Newzoo, an esports analysis group, international esports was a $865 million industry in 2018 and was expected to break the $1 billion mark in 2019. Much like traditional sport leagues, endorsement deals and video distribution of competitions add up to big business.

Jeff Price is a professor of game design and animation at Oklahoma City University and the director of that campus esports team. He sees esports as an ecosystem similar to other professional sports with distribution, support, advertising, production, and broadcast of events. “Not only do we need to have people playing the games, but we also need to have the people reporting on those games,” he said.

He said that school’s esports program originally started as a group of students who met up on weekends to play “Super Smash Brothers.” Since May, it has been a club recognized by the school with upwards of 80 members. While many members are still casual gamers, Price said a varsity team of 22 gamers compete individually or on teams in five different games.

Beginning next fall, Oklahoma City University will also begin offering a communications degree in esports marketing management and production. “We have a social side, a competitive varsity side, and also an academic side,” Price said.

While professional esport teams exist around the world, Elmer said an esport team at Murray State College would be like other campus athletic programs. “Other than the fact that it’s new and flashy because it’s computer based competition, it’s not going to be fundamentally different from any of the other programs or student organizations,” he said.

Elmer expects the program to start small but is already laying a foundation for something bigger. Beginning with a casual student club, he hopes the student gamers will lead the program’s evolution and decide what games to play and how competitive to be. If the organization decides to become a team and compete against other schools, a league would then have to be joined.

The Oklahoma City University esports team competes in three different collegiate leagues, including the National Association for Collegiate Esports. The nonprofit group is one of many governing bodies for esport teams on college campuses and provides a league for competition between 155 colleges.

Over the years, Price has seen many groups forming esport organizations and schools devoting resources to gaming. “In a couple of years that will be the norm, but right now it’s still a bit of the wild west,” he said.

Murray State College athletic programs already compete as part of the National Junior Collegiate Athletic Association. Elmer says a competitive Murray State College team could also compete as part of the NJCAA, but supported games there are limited. He sees the National Association of Collegiate Esports as more diverse with competition and participation.

“Student demand, student interest, how quickly the program grows, that will ultimately determine what umbrella we park ourselves under,” he said.

For now, Elmer said he will focus on recruiting students to decide exactly what the future of esports at Murray State College will look like. Whether the team decides to compete or play casually, he ultimately wants to see students engaged with the school and their peers in order to complete their degrees.

“I’ve seen how [engagement] impacts students from the standpoint of getting into college, getting into a degree program, finishing their degree program, moving on into a career successfully,” he said.