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Esports coming to SOU: School to launch minor program, team

Jeremy Carlton came to Southern Oregon University to teach business, and now he’ll be dissecting one of the biggest businesses of all.

The fact that the subject happens to be one of his lifelong passions, and that its introduction to the curriculum may give SOU a little head start over most other West coast schools, has Carlton feeling giddy.

“It kind of took me by surprise, that’s not what I anticipated,” Carlton said. “When I came to teach at SOU I never in my life would have imagined teaching anything remotely close to video gaming or the history of it.”

SOU will become one of the first universities on the West coast to sink its teeth into the wildly popular world of esports gaming in January when it launches its first esports academic program. Simultaneously, the school is jump-starting its first esports team, which held tryouts on Oct. 26 and whose home arena will be the new esports hub in the Student Recreation Center.

SOU’s new minor in Esports Management will have two required courses — Introduction to Esports Management and Contemporary and Ethical Issues in Esports Management — along with a required 20 credits in business-related classes such as Media Literacy and Event Management.

Based on job prospects, the case for adding esports curriculum is an easy one to make. According to Businesswire.com, the global esports market is expected to hit $3 billion in 2025 with a compound annual growth rate of 18% between 2020 and 2025. Not all of that money will come from big esports stadium-packing events, but it has those, too — 20,000 fans filled the AccorHotels Arena in Paris a year ago to watch the League of Legends championship finals, and that’s a drop in the ocean compared to the number of viewers online.

When Carlton, a gamer himself who has fond memories of pumping nickels into the machines at Wunderland arcades, was asked by SOU administrators to attend an esports business summit in Las Vegas during the summer of 2019 he jumped at the opportunity. The scouting mission confirmed the circumstantial evidence he gathered in class, where roughly 90% of his students say yes, they mash buttons daily.

“We definitely took note of this significant growth and we realized — this is what’s really wild to me — that hardly anybody was doing anything about it,” he said. “There was a graduate program at UC Irvine and then four or five programs on the East coast, and so we decided to be first in and start zeroing in on the possibility of offering the first academic minor.”

There are already signs that Esports Management could be a hit on campus. With the first class still about two months away Carlton said 30 seats have been reserved virtually. And while he knows the program is sure to attract gamers, there’ll be plenty of reasons for those who have no interest in competitive gaming to sign up.

SOU lists 17 occupations related to the minor. Most cross into other industries; some don’t. Shoutcasting, for instance, is esports’ version of broadcasting.

“Some students may not want to be part of the recreational side of it,” Carlton said, “they just want to minor in esports because there are so many positions that are available outside of gaming itself — so think about the support systems in place for ESPN for NCAA competition stuff. So we’re looking at marketing, we’re looking at operations management, we’re looking at general management and event planning.”

For students who would like to test their gaming mettle, SOU’s new esports team represents the first time local students will have that option at the intercollegiate level.

Precious Yamaguchi has taught a Video Game and Cultures class at SOU for the past three years and has also served as the video game club advisor. She has attended several esports competitions, including The International (Dota 2) championships in Seattle, and was thrilled when she was also asked by the university to embark on her own esports scouting mission. During her trip to Atlanta, Georgia in 2018, Yamaguchi learned that the esports craze had already spread to colleges in the Midwest.

She also learned that it was doable at SOU, provided there’s a certain amount of buy-in.

“In terms of finances, it’s not that expensive,” she said, “but the universities and colleges that are serious about their teams, they really do make sure that they take the time to connect in person to strategize in person.”

She was surprised to find out that esports culture and structure is not all that removed from other team sports. Competitors work out together, use stretches that target problem areas (wrist and back), and are serious about practice routines. Discipline is also important, Yamaguchi said.

“A lot of times, esports players are notorious for staying up really late and eating junk food and drinking energy drinks,” she said, “but at the conference they learned how to build a healthy lifestyle for students so they don’t fall into that type of stereotype.”

Melissa Bates, SOU’s esports director, said the school’s first team will consist of seven players and will be led by a student coach. The hope is that they’ll begin competing during winter term but some details must be worked out first, among them whether the Raiders will be able to join the National Association of Collegiate Esports.

SOU is targeting the NACE because, among other things, it competes in League of Legends, the game SOU has decided to play. The team falls under the umbrella of campus recreation, Bates said.

Bates was the obvious choice to lead the program. Besides having 13 years of campus recreation experience under her belt, she’s a gamer.

“It’s an interest I have so I have a lot of enthusiasm for the program,” Bates said. “It was just a natural, ‘Hey, you can do this.’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely, let me do it.’ I’m very excited about it. I talk about it to anyone who’s interested and it’s a pretty big thing for the university. A lot of students on campus are pretty excited about it, too.”

Mail Tribune education reporter Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

A Southern Oregon University student plays a video game in the school's new esports lab in the Student Recreation Center on campus in Ashland.